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March 7, 2011   Columns Articles | Inside UGA | Reliving history

Reliving history

Law students re-enact trial that led to university's integration

Matt Weeks

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By Matt Weeks | March 7, 2011
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For about two hours Feb. 25, the present met the past.

As part of the university's 50th anniversary of desegregation on campus, the School of Law held two events that examined the legal side of integration. The first was a re-enactment of the trial that forced UGA to admit Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter; the second was a panel discussion on the short and long-term ramifications of the decisions featuring prominent legal minds from Georgia.

Outfitted in 1960s-style dress, students from the law school played the parts of Hunter, Holmes, their attorneys and the lawyers for UGA. Each witness took the stand and fielded attorney questions before closing arguments were made and the judge delivered a decision.

From prolonged waits at the registrar's office to aggressive, hour-long interviews, the trial highlighted the obstacles that Holmes and Hunter had to overcome to secure spots at UGA.

In a typical exchange, law student Christopher E. Bruce, who played Hamilton Holmes, responded to an accusation that he was persuaded by the NAACP to legally challenge the university by saying "No, sir. I wasn't drafted by the NAACP. In football terms, I was a walk-on."

Speaking as Judge William Bootle, emeritus law professor Ron Carlson said, "The court is aware that demonstrations surrounding the entry of these students have become violent. . . Some see this as a reason for this court not to proceed. The view of this court is that Constitutional rights are not to be sacrificed in the face of disorder, nor can lawful orders of this court be frustrated by mob violence. Nothing in these demonstrations shall slow the work of this court. It is the finding of this court that Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter would already have been admitted to the university had they been judged on their merits and not their race. It is the order of this court that they be immediately admitted."

The panel discussion that followed the re-enactment featured Judge Horace Ward, one of the attorneys who represented Holmes and Hunter; Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, one of the first black students at the law school; Kenneth Dious, Athens' first African-American lawyer and a 1973 alumnus of the law school; and Maureen Downey, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The panel discussed what integration meant for the university, the state and the nation as well as what related issues are surfacing now.

"I think the question today is: Are segregated classrooms more acceptable today as a matter of choice rather than court order or law? I think what we're seeing in Georgia today is a re-segregation of schools by residential housing patterns, and it's very problematic," Downey said. "People are choosing where to live and it's hard to argue with that."

Added Benham: "I think education is part of a bigger picture. I want to give this country credit for the progress we've made. I think what will bode well for our future is our realization of how we made this progress. It's come about because of our diversity. Everybody doesn't look alike. We don't have the same religion. Those differences strengthen us as a country. The differences cause us to be sensitive to the needs of others."

In a related academic event, David C. Driskell, emeritus professor at the University of Maryland, gave the closing lecture on Feb. 28 at the Georgia Museum of Art for the 50th anniversary of UGA's desegregation.

An artist, Driskell discussed the importance of African-American art, especially in the pieces currently on display at the Georgia Museum of Art in the exhibition Tradition Redefined: The Larry and Brenda Thompson Collection of African American Art.

The collection spans three centuries of African-American art from still-lifes to portraits. He spoke on the importance of memory in African-American art.

"One of the things we can be certain of is that through time and place, we measure the accomplishments of civilizations through their art," he said. "The art is what chronicles who we were, what we did, how we interacted. It is, to a certain extent, the measure of our history. It chronicles our every action, even when we have not assigned it that task."

The university's desegregation observation ended Feb. 28 with a sold-out concert by rapper B.o.B. at the Tate Student Center.

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