Legacy of racist South mars Georgia's civil rights birthday

January 19, 2001

This month marks the anniversary of a civil rights milestone at the University of Georgia.

Forty years ago, a student slipped into the administration building of a United States university to register for classes. Her olive green jumper, blouse with matching flowers and ankle-high boots were fashionable but unremarkable. Charlayne Hunter and fellow student Hamilton Holmes stood out because they were the only blacks among 20,000 white students.

The desegregation of the University of Georgia was paralleled at universities across the Deep South. Its opponents were unwilling to surrender - no black student would ever attend classes at the university or at any other white school in the state.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, now CNN's bureau chief in Johannesburg, told a commemoration conference at Georgia: "Our very lives were in jeopardy.

"If anyone had given... me a crystal ball into which we could have looked to the future 40 years hence and seen only 6 per cent students of colour in a student body of 34,000, I think we might have sat down and cried.

"In our pioneering exuberance, we thought the successful desegregation of the university and our performance here would give the lie once and for all to the notion of black inferiority and racism. But old habits of mind, we came to learn, and the morality it produced, lasted longer than reason would have led us to imagine.

"Racism and remedies to remove it for all time remain an abiding challenge - whether here, in Athens or Miami or Johannesburg."

The pressure to keep the campus all-white was maintained even when all legal moves to prevent their registration had been exhausted. Ms Hunter-Gault had to endure a riot outside her dormitory when a brick smashed through a window, and being cold-shouldered by the 200 students in her dormitory, many of whom took turns to pound the floor of the room above hers late into the night.

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