A one and one-half hour drive northeast of Atlanta,
the college town of Athens,
known as the Classic City, holds a memorable place in Civil
Rights Movement history because of the
integration of The University of Georgia (UGA) in 1961 by African
Hunter and Hamilton
for this campaign by the NAACP to
desegregate the University, Hunter and Holmes were articulate and
academically talented, and they came from well established families
in Atlanta. Their poise and determination as UGA's first African
American students brought national media attention to University
and its efforts to maintain segregation.
During Hunter and Holmes' campaign, it was even brought to light
that UGA would pay out-of-state
tuition to African American students who qualified for admission
so that they could obtain degrees elsewhere.
Guided by a legal team led by attorneys Donald
L. Hollowell, Constance
Baker Motley, and Horace
T. Ward, who ironically
had been denied admission to The
University of Georgia School of Law in 1951, Hunter and Holmes
gained the support of black Athens residents, whose assistance included
providing safe housing off campus for Holmes. Unlike the Albany
Movement, however, where a restrained police force led by Chief
Laurie Pritchett thwarted the effectiveness of the news media
to convey the brutality and race hatred that permeated Albany and
much of the South, massive media accounts of Hunter and Holmes'
efforts placed The University of Georgia and the town of Athens
at the epicenter of the civil rights struggle. News reports
and film footage of angry white students hurling racial epithets
and hateful glances at Hunter and Holmes, and images of Hunter’s
tearful departure from her dormitory during a campus riot, helped
raise awareness among Americans that the time for immediate racial
equality had come.
While Hunter and Holmes persevered, Mary
Frances Early, a graduate student at The University of Michigan,
decided to transfer to assist them. In January 1961, Early
enrolled in the University's music education program and became
the institution's first African American graduate on August 16,
1962. Early's courage helped provide a foundation for Hunter's
and Holmes's successful graduations.
Hunter and Holmes, nonetheless, were the first undergraduates to
integrate the state’s flagship institution successfully, and by
igniting debates on campus and in the state about the social and
educational merits of integrated classrooms, they kept alive a national
conversation that had begun with Brown
v. Board of Education in
1954. Civil rights issues continued to impact the University through
the 1970s, including demands for increased
recruitment and retention of African American students and
equal treatment for women
students, and anti-war protests when former
Secretary of State Dean Rusk became a faculty member.
During the Jim Crow era, African Americans in and around Athens
experienced harassment and violence by Ku
Klux Klan members, and
they endured separate and unequal schools
and public facilities.
But, in a pattern that was repeated throughout the Deep South,
black Athenians collectively resisted a victim mentality and created
strong religious, benevolent, and educational institutions.
established thriving beauty and barber shops, restaurants, retail
stores, and other businesses in the city's historic Hot Corner and
other neighborhoods. Downtown on Washington Street, the Morton
Theater, the first black-owned vaudeville theater
in the country, attracted African American comedy acts, blues singers,
and jazz musicians
who contributed to the rich artistic and cultural scene that still
characterizes the city.
in the post-Civil Rights Movement era, many residents of Clarke
Athens is located remain among the most impoverished in the state.
Working-class members of the city's African American
and immigrant Mexican populations (Georgia
ranks third in the nation for growth among Latino
have been affected by the homelessness, joblessness, school absenteeism,
violent crime, and gang cultures that accompany poverty.
Yet a legacy
of civil rights activism continues with the city’s ambitious Partners
for a Prosperous Athens anti-poverty initiative,
which brings together businesses, non-profits, churches, civic organizations,
medical services, and schools to work together for the common good.
In addition to poverty, urban sprawl and climate change demand the
city's attention. Organizations such as BikeAthens and
the campus chapter of Habitat
for Humanity are two of numerous groups
that are seeking sustainable and fair solutions to increased demands
placed by the city’s growth on land and other resources.
Created to bridge town-and-gown divisions between the black and
Latino residents of Athens and the historically white University
of Georgia are projects such as the Peoples' College sponsored by
for African American Studies (IAAS). Modeled after W.E.B.
Du Bois's idea of university/community-based education, the
Peoples' College brings together faculty, students, and members
of the Athens community to discuss African American culture and
brainstorm solutions to problems affecting neighborhoods and families.
The annual Black and Brown Conference, established by psychology
professor Kecia M. Thomas and anthropology
professor Brent Berlin,
is another contemporary initiative that appropriates the Movement’s
coalition-building strategies in order identify mutual goals, share
expertise, and forge working alliances among African Americans and
Latinos in the state.
inspired by the grass-roots, do-it-yourself, participatory activism
of the 1950s and 1960s, the collective Dreaded Mindz Family uses hip
hop music, literature, and culture to empower Athens youth
to express themselves creatively, improve conditions in their neighborhoods,
and increase self-awareness about health, education, politics, finances,
and other issues that affect them. The Foot
Soldier Project for Civil Rights Studies produces films that
document the contributions of unsung and underdiscussed men and
women who organized against discrimination and fought for peace
and social justice in Athens and at the University.
In his 1963 essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region My Mind,”
the writer and civil rights activist James
Baldwin wrote, "The
paradox—and a fearful paradox it is—is that the American Negro
can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is
unwilling to accept his past. To accept one’s past—one’s history—is
not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use
Athens stands as a microcosm for the rest of the South as it attempts
to use the lessons of a past arbitrarily divided into black and
white in order to recognize and strengthen its diverse communities.
Resources (click here)
Barbara McCaskill, Dept. of English, The University
of Georgia; and Professor
Derrick P. Alridge, Director and Associate
Professor of the Institute for African American Studies and Co-Director
of the Foot Soldier Project for Civil Rights Studies at The University
and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Lauren Chambers, Christina L.
Davis, Aggie Ebrahimi, Mary Boyce Hicks, Courtney Thomas, Professor
Barbara McCaskill, and the students of ENGL 2400 (Survey of Multicultural
American Literature, Spring 2007) and AFAM/ENGL 3230 (Survey of
African American Literature, Spring 2007).
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