Charlayne Hunter is shown in January 1961 walking to class at the University of Georgia. File photo via AJC

Fifty years ago today Charlayne Hunter and her classmate Hamilton Holmes became the first black students to register for classes at the University of Georgia. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a wonderful write-up looking back that the risks and rewards Hunter (now Hunter-Gault) and Hamilton undertook to blaze this path for future generations. (Via)

In 1961, an 18-year-old Hunter just wanted to attend the school’s top-ranked journalism program. Since her historic color-line break, she has had an amazing career contributing to the New York Times, NPR, PBS, and The New Yorker. (Read her most recent piece, on South Africa’s Jacob Zuma (sub. req.). Holmes became a respected surgeon.

On NPR recently, Hunter-Gault and former President Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan, who was fresh out of law school at the time of the integration, talked about the struggle for desegregation and matters of race that continue some five decades later. Listen to the radio broadcast and look at images from her college days here. Read an excerpt below:

Keep in mind, they were taking on the entire state of Georgia. They were taking on the governor, the regents, the legislature and the judiciary, and the university system,” [Jordan] says. “The university did everything conceivable and possible — legal and illegal — to keep them out. They were standing against the big wall. And they won.”

On their first day at the school, Holmes and his father, and Hunter-Gault and her mother had no security escort as they walked on campus with Jordan. But despite the shouts from demonstrators, Hunter-Gault says, she remembers only one real cause for alarm.

“Vernon and I are both tall,” she says, “and we were walking rather briskly, and my mother called out, ‘Don’t walk so fast, my legs are not as long as yours!’

“So, you know, we maintained our moments of sanity, I think, by just being who we were.”

It took huge amounts of strength and conviction to confront a virulently racist South. Today we should remember their efforts and evaluate how far we’ve come in our educational system and how far we have to go to erase the inequality that still exists. What do you think is the most pressing issue facing our students these days? Racism? Funding? What? Comment below.

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