USA TODAY’s “Seven Days of 1961” explores how sustained acts of resistance can bring about sweeping change. Throughout 1961, activists risked their lives to fight for voting rights and the integration of schools, businesses, public transit and libraries. Decades later, their work continues to shape debates over voting access, police brutality and equal rights for all.
ATHENS, Ga. – The rock shot through the window in her dorm room, spraying shards of glass over her open, unpacked suitcase on the floor. Oh my God, all over my clothes, Charlayne Hunter-Gault thought – OK, this is ugly.
The white mob gathered outside Myers Hall at the University of Georgia wanted her gone. They numbered 2,000 strong, a mix of KKK members, fellow students, community members and bystanders. They threw rocks at the dormitory. They set off firecrackers that ignited small fires. They chanted, “Two! Four! Six! Eight! We ain’t going to integrate!”
She was 19. A journalism major and a former homecoming queen. For this, her first day of class, she had chosen a tasteful blue and green tweed skirt with a matching sweater. But the mob saw only her Black skin.
There was no one else in her dorm room, no one else living on the floor. She was isolated from the other female residents, assigned to live in a kitchenette turned into a makeshift two-room suite with a refrigerator, stove and full bath. The courts had forced the university to integrate its classrooms after 170 years of apartheid, but the toilets and sinks remained separated by race.
Dean of students Joe Williams was at Hunter-Gault’s door. He told her she was suspended and must immediately leave the campus. “For your own safety,” he said.
In the hallway outside, telephones hung on the wall. Hunter-Gault worried her mother had seen the news reports. She dialed.
Don’t turn on the television, Hunter-Gault told her mother, I am OK. I’m coming home.
On Jan. 11, 1961, Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes became the first Black students at the University of Georgia, a flagship university of the South and one of the largest to resist integration seven years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling banned segregation in education. They were part of a generation of Americans who rose up in 1961 to organize against the violence and dehumanization of racial segregation and white supremacy.
Other Black students had sought entrance at UGA starting in 1952, but the university had stalled, claiming the dorms were full or the application was incomplete. When Hunter-Gault and Holmes managed to break through, there were flashes of opposition – students yelling racial slurs, Confederate flags hung through campus, lawmakers refusing to accept the tides of change. It was only after the ugliness of the riot outside Myers Hall that the community rose up, albeit halfheartedly, to denounce racism and embrace integration.
"The integration of the University of Georgia is that kind of important moment, because it continues this assault on the sort of bastions of segregation and institutions that are huge symbols," said Spencer Crew, director emeritus of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and curator of the permanent exhibition “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968."
The victory was far from absolute. Many years later, as Black Americans are once again taking to public spaces to demand equality, segregation in schools is illegal, but whiteness still dominates in Georgia higher education, as well as at colleges and universities throughout the nation.
Black students and students of color are attending college at higher rates compared with previous decades, but are disproportionately enrolling at community colleges or less selective, for-profit colleges.
“We have integrated but in some ways, we're still segregated,” said Kelly Rosinger, a professor of education and research associate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University.
On the night of the riot 60 years ago, Williams escorted Hunter-Gault into the hostile darkness, the stench of tear gas heavy like fog in the night.
Hunter-Gault remembered a Bible verse her grandmother had taught her years ago: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
The dean carried her books and suitcase. She clutched a statue of the Madonna and cried tears of rage.
A hard-fought first day of school
Holmes and Hunter-Gault were among the top students at Atlanta’s Turner High School, a public school for Black people, when they were approached in 1959 by activists with the Atlanta Committee on Cooperative Action, a group determined to integrate Georgia higher education.
The men encouraged the teenagers to enroll at Georgia State University in Atlanta because it was closer to home. Holmes and Hunter-Gault visited the campus and reviewed the curriculum. Neither was satisfied. As young people who valued their education, they wanted the best schooling they could get.
When Holmes walked out of the GSU building, he turned to the group and pointed north, as if they could see the University of Georgia’s storied Athens campus outlined in the air.
“I want to go there,” Holmes told them. They all understood what “there” meant.
Hunter-Gault’s competitiveness kicked in.
"Yeah, me too,” she said. “That's where I want to go."
The students were exceptional. They had to be to push through barriers of racism.
Holmes was the valedictorian, student body president and football captain. He was determined to become a doctor like his grandfather.
Hunter-Gault was a top editor on the school paper. Her father and grandfather were preachers, and from the pulpit, her grandfather had said, study words because words will be your liberation.
Her grandmother had left school in third grade to help out at home, but valued education and read three newspapers a day. At 5, Charlayne would sit on her knee, find the comics and read about the glamorous, adventurous comic-strip reporter Brenda Starr. When she told her mother she wanted to be like Brenda Starr, her mother said, “If that’s what you want to do.”
On Jan. 6, 1961, a prolonged legal battle ended in Hunter-Gault and Holmes’ favor. They would start school five days later, two days into the semester.
Even before her arrival on campus, Hunter-Gault was a curiosity and a target. The day the judge signed the order, 150 students hung her and Holmes in effigy while singing “Dixie.” Other students tried to burn a 15-foot cross, but couldn’t get it lit.
When she arrived on campus with Holmes, her car was surrounded by hecklers, some shouting “Kill the n------s.” A fraternity lowered a Confederate flag to half-staff. Hunter-Gault did her best to stare straight ahead as she walked.
In a psychology class on the history of behavior patterns, the other students left the seats next to her and behind her empty. Afterward, a few students greeted her with handshakes and nice-to-have-yous.
Later that day, Hunter-Gault entered a journalism ethics class unaware of what had unfolded moments prior.
Joan Zitzelman, a white student, arrived at the auditorium before Hunter-Gault and found a seat in the back. Scrawled across the blackboard, waiting for Hunter-Gault, was a racial epithet. Zitzelman descended the 12 rows and erased the words. She turned and saw the collective eyes of all her peers staring at her.
As she returned to her seat, Zitzelman wondered whether anyone would have the courage to stand up and rewrite it. She wondered whether she would have the courage to erase it again.
The hostile environment was by design. Tommy Johnson, a reporter for the student newspaper, the Red & Black, said that at one point, Georgia state lawmakers were calling students to spread messages of hate.
“Politicians who were very strong segregationists were urging the students to resist and to have the students almost as their instruments of resistance,” Johnson said.
‘Come on, let’s get them’
As Hunter-Gault ended her historic first day of class, other students emerged from a basketball game against arch-rival Georgia Tech. The game had gone into overtime, but when the final whistle blew, UGA lost. With tensions high, the integrated dorm became an instant target.
Students, including Zitzelman, had petitioned the university officials to shut the game down because they worried a large gathering would grow violent.
“We got beat by Georgia Tech and we got beat by the n-----,” one student was overheard saying.
Alone in her dorm, Hunter-Gault heard a growing noise outside her window. A group of men in crewcuts held up a bedsheet on which they had written, “N----- GO HOME!!!”
When the rock and a Coke bottle hurtled into her room, she was aghast by the window shards on her clothing.
“Girls in South, especially those brought up like me in the church – I mean, my friends who demonstrated in the movement, often demonstrated in their high-heeled shoes and gloves like they will go into church – and so our clothes were very special to us,” Hunter-Gault said.
Outside, Calvin "Bud" Trillin, then a 25-year-old reporter for Time magazine was watching the riot unfold. He had formally introduced himself to Hunter-Gault that morning while she was on the way to class, launching a decades-long friendship over their shared passion for telling stories. Before the riot, he gave her a call. “Hey, Charlayne, it’s Bud,” he said. “How’d you like a hot pastrami sandwich right about now?” They laughed. Both of them knew there was no hot pastrami in Athens.
Now, Trillin could feel the burning in his chest and eyes. Tear gas. An offensive move from the sorely outnumbered police.
Johnson, the student journalist, was also in the crowd. It seemed to him that many were too old to be students.
“It's like one of those nights, I'll never forget," Johnson said. "In the darkness, I can make out some faces. In the darkness, I could hear shouts. There was a lot of use of the N-word.”
Four young Black men watched from nearby, ready to fight for Hunter-Gault and Holmes if needed. One of them, Ken Dious, a high school football player, had previously protested at segregated lunch counters, marched against the Klan, and gotten arrested several times for the cause. He had never seen a crowd this large in town.
“There were only four of us,” Dious said. “And that was a huge crowd.”
The students started to disperse when William Tate, the dean of male students, arrived, cutting through the crowd and demanding student ID cards.
Across town, the Black community had set up protection for Holmes, who was able to live off-campus with a local Black family, the Killians. Since his arrival, Black people had patrolled the streets outside the home with weapons.
An editorial ran the next day in the student paper, condemning the riot.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the University, you made history last night. Are you proud of the manner in which you did so? We hope not."
No one in the crowd had seen the signature white cloaks of the Ku Klux Klan – or the Tri Kappa, as the fraternity men would sometimes call them. But days later, local news reports showed grand dragon Calvin Craig from Atlanta and several other Klansmen had attended the riot and been arrested for “inciting violence.”
They were carrying pistols.
The first Black graduates
As Hunter-Gault walked out of the dorm room, a gaggle of white women formed a semicircle around her. The students had been told to change their bedsheets as a safety precaution against the teargas.
“Here, Charlayne, go upstairs and change my sheets,” one of the students taunted as she tossed a coin at Hunter-Gault.
Hunter-Gault wore a long coat tied at the waist to keep her warm as Tate escorted her to a highway patrol vehicle. The officer drove her to the Killian home five minutes away, where Holmes, newly awakened and already on the phone with their lawyer, insisted on driving himself and Hunter-Gault home to Atlanta in his beloved car, gifted to him by his grandfather.
Hunter-Gault persuaded him to ride with her in the patrolman’s vehicle. The road to Atlanta cut through Klan territory. It was safer this way, she thought.
After a quiet ride, they arrived in Atlanta past midnight. Hunter-Gault, Holmes, their legal team, reporters and supporters gathered in Hunter-Gault’s home to make plans.
It took another order from a United States District Judge for the two students to be readmitted five days later. Nearly two-thirds of the faculty signed a petition demanding that the two students be allowed to return to class.
In that time, a gunman appeared at Hunter-Gault’s dorm, asking for her.
Hunter-Gault and Holmes continued their education without further disruption. Another Black student, Mary Frances Early, joined the university later that year. She became the first Black student to graduate from UGA.
Holmes went on to become the first Black student to attend the Emory University School of Medicine. He became an orthopedic surgeon and returned to Emory as a professor and associate dean. He died in 1995 at the age of 54.
Hunter-Gault, now 79, became a journalist, working for publications such as The New York Times, the New Yorker, PBS, CNN and NPR. She won two Emmys and a Peabody award for her reporting across Africa.
After Holmes and Hunter-Gault graduated, Dious became the first Black man to wear the UGA football uniform and try out for the team.
“It let me know I could go to the UGA,” Dious said of the battle Holmes and Hunter-Gault fought and won.
Klansman threatened to kill Dious for playing university sports; many students made it clear they didn’t want him there. He was the only Black student in his classes, but he graduated like anyone else, he said.
“A lot of people think I went crazy. I say, thank God for UGA,” he said. “I feel like I really, you know, contributed to things.”
The university’s student body today is two-thirds white, one of the highest percentages of white students in the University System of Georgia. Roughly 5% of the faculty is Black.
Across the nation, Black high school students are among the least likely to receive college readiness courses, trailing only Pacific Islanders. Black students also have the lowest college graduation rate of any group besides Native Americans. And yet the Black college graduation rate has more than doubled since the integration movement of the 1960s.
Holmes never seemed to connect with the white students at the university. He racked up A grades, but stayed quiet on campus, instead preferring to spend his time with the other Black young men in Athens.
“He would leave class and go to the Killians, put down his books and change clothes and go play football with the boys,” Hunter-Gault said.
Hunter-Gault made many friends at UGA, including Zitzelman from her journalism ethics class. She met her first husband there.
In 1988, she returned to campus as the first Black commencement speaker. In her speech, Hunter-Gault read part of a letter from a former classmate: “Your experience was visible to me. I watched from the window the night the mob came from over the hill ... and the shock remains. For the first time, I understood unreasonable cruelty, and I have not been an innocent since that night.’”
Soon after the riot, a group of white women in Hunter-Gault’s dorm arrived at her door with bags of groceries. They were there to cook dinner with her.
Hunter-Gault welcomed them in.
To report these stories, USA TODAY interviewed veterans of the civil rights movement, historians and witnesses and reviewed public records.
Deborah Barfield Berry contributed to this report.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Inside one woman's fight to integrate higher education in the South