By T.W. Burger In January of 1961 I was an 11-year-old kid in Athens when Charlayne Hunter, now Hunter-Gault, and Hamilton Holmes, both African American students from Atlanta, became the first of their kind to become students at the University of Georgia.
Watching the night news and reading the papers, one would have thought it was the end of the world as we knew it.
I had a kind of link to the whole issue. Our family had moved to Athens in 1958 because my dad was one of the engineers at the shiny new Westinghouse Electric Transformer Plant on Newton Bridge Road. Dad was one of a small group of professionals to come design and build the factory in the late 1950s. Westinghouse loved the South because of that region’s apparent allergy to unions.
My brother and I moved into the local school district. I do not know about David, but I was harassed and pounded repeatedly because I was a yankee. This was about the time that the Civil Rights movement was picking up RPMs in the graveyard of the Confederacy and the parents of my classmates were generally frothing at the mouth about all “them damned yankees coming to tell us how to live.”
The western PA school district in which I had been born had schools for both races, not because they were so socially advanced, but because they were too poor to build separate facilities for blacks and white.
I know that now. I did not know it then. My elementary school in Pennsylvania had few blacks because there were not many in my neighborhood. Other schools in the county had more.
One day in third or fourth grade, I asked, in the boy’s restroom, where all the black kids were. The correct answer was that they had their own school, some miles away. The answer I got was that I opened my eyes on the blue tile floor and figured I had better keep my curiosity to myself. The white schools did not begin integrating until the year I was ready to graduate. It was traumatic, since many of the black students in the county were poorly educated, because their intellectual training had never mattered to the white board of education.
I remember the alarm at my schools at the very idea of letting black students mix with the rest of us.
This was all a little over my head.
But as somebody physically and mentally abused for being different in Athens, the abuse hurled upon Hunter and Holmes resonated. They were both highly rated high school students in Atlanta. When they were rejected by UGA administrators, I judge said that, if they had been white, they would have been admitted right off the bat.
It was ugly. It was, in the larger sense, embarrassing. I think, even at my young age, that I felt that. I was ashamed for my new home. I did not understand.
I think I still do not.
But I remember watching the film on the news broadcasts and seeing the looks on the faces of the crowds jeering as Hunter and Holmes made their way to the registration office at UGA. They were older versions of the same faces that stood watching as a couple of boys kicked my ass on a regular basis at Alps Road Elementary and at the adjacent Junior High.
Today, there is a movement afoot to rename the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism after Hunter-Gault, who has become a world-renowned journalist after graduating from UGA. (Hamilton became a physician. He is now deceased.) Grady was just another southern racist who was a fan of slavery. Why the hell would you name a journalism school after him, of all people?
I am trying to imagine being a black journalism student walking into a building with Grady’s name emblazoned over the door. I cannot make the image work in my head. I see those hulking rednecks looming over me, pounding me into the blue tile floors of the boys’ rooms. The difference is only one of scale.
Fast-forward to the present. I think the worst thing about all this is that I remember the fight for civil rights in my youth. I remember fights and bruises and heartbreak.
And I cannot believe we are still having this fight as I pass into my 70s.
T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.
He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.
He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”