Incidental Ambassadors

Incidental Ambassadors

Reviewed by Linda Blackford

Vol. 14, No. 3, 1992, pp. 28-29

An Education in Georgia , by Calvin Trillin, Foreword by Charlayne Hunter Gault (University of Georgia Press, 1991, 180 pages)

If prevailing wisdom is correct, the events and conditions detailed in Calvin Trillin’s An Education in Georgia are—if not completely gone—then at least unfamiliar to Southerners who grew up after the shadow of segregation was lifted, in 1961, Trillin, then a Time magazine reporter, chronicled the entrance of the first black students into the University of Georgia, a haven of some of the most distinguished alumni, and hardened racists, in the South. He recounts the long court battles before Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter were finally admitted, the riot that sent them home a week after they arrived, the gibes, the taunts, the cruel and total isolation.

Unfortunately, prevailing wisdom too often represents the casual chatter of optimists, not the truth. After reading Trillin’s book and breathing a sigh of relief that all that is over—the book was, after all, first published in 1964—a disquieting fear creeps in with the realization that complacency about progress is not only dangerous, but misguided. Trillin’s book recalls William Faulkner’s advice about history—”The past is not dead, its not even past”—and reminds us to look at today’s college campuses and witness the so-called progress that has been made. To be sure, black students on college campuses in the South and, indeed, in the North, are no longer outcasts, but the racial lines stand out as clearly as they ever did in the past, and black and white interaction is guarded and infrequent. Confederate flags may no longer fly over the campuses nor do hostile crowds greet minority students, but the uneasy truce that exists on campuses today is a far cry from the promised land of racial unity envisioned by desegregationists three decades ago.

Trillin followed the facts of the case in 1961 but never lost interest in the consequences. He notes, “As a reporter then based in Atlanta, I had covered both the week-long trial that resulted in their admission and the events that followed their arrival on campus in 1961, and in the spring of 1963, about ten weeks before Charlayne and Hamilton graduated, I returned to Georgia from New York, where I had been living to see how integration had worked out at the University of Georgia—whether or not the Student Heroes had ever become simply students and how two bright young people happened to become student heroes in the first place.”

Trillin held to his original intent, detailing the legal and political changes and ramifications, but never moving too far away from the two main characters, Hunter and Hamilton. Trillin was there when the two black students arrived and witnessed the riot in front of Hunter’s dorm a week later, after which Holmes and Hunter were suspended, “for their own safety.” Once they were reinstated with a court order, their real life began. Real life as two black students at an all-white school was, as Hunter recall in her introduction to the book, “the closest thing to a surrealistic dream I have ever experienced.”

Hunter and Holmes were instantly famous. They, along with other black students like James Meredith, in Mississippi, furthered the “Cause,” far more tangibly than marches or sit-ins, by forcing unwilling participants in integration to face the future. But what Trillin never loses sight of is that this episode was not just about the Cause or segregation, but about two young people who made history without necessarily wanting to do anything more then be college students.

The fact that they became student heroes was unavoidable. Hunter and Holmes had been selected as two of the best and brightest to come out of middle-class black Atlanta; their records had to be impeccable so the admissions department could have no excuse for denial. Hunter got more attention for being a pretty girl and living on campus; it was she who had to bear the most insults and invisible barriers everywhere she went. Holmes lived in Athens’ black community, quietly making Phi Beta Kappa and ignoring the students around him with as much scorn as they ignored him. He also coordinated successfully his relationship with the Cause, spending weekends speaking to young people around the South. Hunter was much more ambivalent about the Cause, and about accepting her situation; as Trillin describes:

But, more and more, Charlayne had come to recognize the irony of spending a week end in New York, where everyone found her charming, and then returning to the long weeks in Athens, where she was likely to be sneered at when she went to the Co-op for a cup of coffee. There was a special kind of loneliness, she discovered, in being the best-known

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student on campus and a student undesirable at the same time. Moreover, her ambitions were not as easily related to the Cause as Hamilton’s—she had no desire to be the Number 1 student at Georgia or to be admitted to Emory Medical School—and she felt a certain hollowness in being honored as a student hero without having done anything that was, by the ordinary standards of collegiate success, heroic.

Or, as Hunter said,

“When I go to those meetings, people try to make me feel that I’m representing the whole Negro race, and that’s not right. I’m not an ideal girl or a perfect student. I don’t want to be an ideal girl—just a girl.”

The other heroes of Trillin’s book are the families and lawyers who worked behind the scenes, and many of the. professors at Georgia who helped get Hunter and Holmes admitted and make to their stay, if not pleasant, then bearable. Notable among them were Jesse Hill, representing the Atlanta Committee for Cooperative Action, and Donald Hollowell and Constance Baker Motley, lawyers for the plaintiffs through the arduous court battle.

Fortunately, Trillin the reporter is never too far away from Trillin the humorist, who pops up from time to time, always ready to record the theater of the absurd. When a white professor at Georgia calls the N.A.A.C.P., the N.A.A.C., Trillin remarks, “It seemed to me that the dean’s courtliness was slipping; white Southerners often have difficulty with the names of Negro organizations, presumably on the theory that if they are mispronounced often enough they will go away.”

Beyond the individual stories that Trillin captured is the as yet unfinished tale of the South and its racial relations.

Trillin’s objective yet moving prose underscores the truth of the phrase, Le plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. An Education in Georgia stands in its own right as a scroll of one of the most significant events in Southern history and a startling testament to the advances that still must be made.

Linda Blackford is a young news reporter with The Observer of Charlottesville, Virginia.