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 American students Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes.

Hand-picked 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 retentionof African American students and faculty, 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. 

Black entrepreneurs 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.           

Yet in the post-Civil Rights Movement era, many residents of Clarke County where 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 residents), 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 the Institute 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. 

And 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 it" (111).

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.    

Suggested Resources (click here)

Writers: Professor 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 of Georgia

Editors 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).

Web Site Designer: William Weems  

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