Leaders and Landmarks

The greatest strength of the Civil Rights Movement in the Sixties, says Donald L. Hollowell, the Atlanta attorney who represented both Civil Rights activists and, as EEOC Regional Director, plaintiffs seeking Federal enforcement, was Atlanta’s exceptional leadership

This article originally appeared in our May 1981 issue.

When Donald L. Hollowell settled in Atlanta in 1951, with his law degree from Loyola University and his honorable discharge as Captain from the U.S. Army, he could enter the courthouse through the front door—but couldn’t eat in the cafeteria. If he rode a bus, he had to sit in the last few rows—or stand. Like all other blacks (or “Negroes” in the style of those days), he could not be served at the airport or any downtown restaurant or spend the night at an Atlanta hotel. He and his family were not permitted to use a city swimming pool or the public library.

The list of restrictions was endless.

And it was the law.

“Racial segregation was the order of the day,” he recalls, sitting at his desk in his tenth floor office in the Citizens Trust Building, where he now serves as regional attorney for the Atlanta office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). “It permeated every facet of life outside the home and, therefore, within the home.”

Hollowell grew up in Kansas, where there was little racial segregation. During part of his first and third grade years, he was in segregated classes. But, as he explains, “There were not enough blacks in [his hometown in] Kansas to warrant special schools—or special facilities of any kind, for that matter. Beyond elementary school, nothing was segregated.” (Ironically, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing public school segregation originated in Hollowell’s home state, not the rigidly segregated South.)

Hollowell was not a stranger to the South. As a member of the football, basketball and track teams of  Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, he had visited many Southern cities, including Atlanta. During World War II, he had been stationed for a time at Ft. Benning and had visited Atlanta frequently. He had experienced the daily hardships of a racially segregated society.

Why, then, did a young black lawyer starting his professional career choose a city where schools, housing, public accommodations, jobs, medical care, churches—everything—were strictly segregated?

It was partly happenstance. His family had moved to California during the War, and he had no real ties back in Kansas. His wife Louise, a native Georgian, had stayed in Atlanta while Hollowell was fighting in Europe. Her mother, who lived with them, opposed a move to California. But the decision to remain in Atlanta went deeper than convenience.

“I recognized that the bulk of the culture of the black people grew out of the South, and also I saw an opportunity for service. There were only ten black attorneys in Atlanta at the time, and, as far as I knew, there were none outside Atlanta. We heard about a black lawyer down in Savannah, but I was never able to find him,” Hollowell recalls.

Atlanta had the need; Hollowell had the skills. Was it possible for a black lawyer to practice in the South as a lawyer, not as a black lawyer? He consulted with both whites and blacks in the area. Their consensus was a definite maybe. It was possible, they told him.

Hollowell never doubted that it was, and his 30-year legal career has been guided by that conviction. He is first and foremost a legal craftsman, working within the system, prodding it to correct itself, but never straying outside of it.

Even during the early Fifties in the Deep South, Hollowell’s insistence on being accorded the respect due a lawyer has served him well. “I never let anybody treat me otherwise,” he says simply. “In practicing law, there are only limited situations where there might be a suggestion of racial overtones. In the courtroom there are set procedures and everybody knows them. There is an aura of respect about lawyers. Bailiffs, sheriffs, judges, all come to recognize you if you’re a person with some skill.

“There were times,” he adds, “when people didn’t do that. Sometimes I had to deal with them directly, but in most circumstances, you may call upon the court, the judge himself, to correct the ‘mistakes’—invoke the sovereign presence of the court, so to speak.

“There were many, of course, who gave less than a damn about who you were or what you did if your skin was black, but looking back at all the places we went all over the South, there were surprisingly few. There were some threats of violence, some phone calls, but no instances of real violence. No crosses burned.

“There is a kind of protection that comes from being associated with the law,” Hollowell explains. And from consistently conducting oneself with personal dignity, he might add.

So in 1951, he settled in Atlanta, passed the Georgia Bar exam and began to practice law in association with Cassandra Maxwell, who had recently moved to Atlanta from South Carolina, where she had been the first black female to be admitted to the bar.

At that time, there was hardly a crack in the fortified wall of segregation. Black police officers had been hired a few years earlier but were given no authority to arrest whites. Schools and colleges, public and private, were strictly segregated by race. There was no black official in City government nor any black elected to the State legislature. The Metropolitan Opera sang primarily to whites only (with a few blacks in the top gallery). The only desegregated hospital was operated by the Veterans Administration. Grady Memorial Hospital required anyone calling for emergency service to designate the race of the victim; strictly segregated funeral homes provided the vehicles. There was no black physician on Grady’s staff. The daily papers ran “help wanted” ads under the classifications “for whites” and “for Negroes.”

Perhaps the tenor of those years was best exemplified in the response to a 1955 Supreme Court order requiring the municipal golf courses to either admit blacks or close. The City chose to keep them open, but in announcing capitulation, then-Mayor William B. Hartsfield reassured the white public there were “only a few dozen Negro players and golf, by its very nature, is a segregated game and neither necessary nor compulsory.”

While a college education is not compulsory—or even necessary to many—it is a lot more important than a golf game. The state’s university system, particularly the University of Georgia, became a new target for the foes of segregation, and much stronger resistance developed.

The dean of the small band of black lawyers in Atlanta was “Colonel” (never “Mister”) A. T. Walden, who had begun work in the early Fifties on a suit to force the University of Georgia Law School to admit a black student, Horace Ward. Walden invited Hollowell to join the suit which ended inconclusively after a few skirmishes. “They sent Horace off to the Army,” Hollowell remembers. Ward later decided to get his law degree at Northwestern University. Today, Judge Ward presides over the U. S. District Court in Atlanta.

Hollowell’s association with Walden in that effort, however, began his career devotion to civil rights. He won a suit in 1959 to admit blacks to the Georgia State College of Business Administration (now Georgia State University) and filed suit against the University of Georgia. That, he says “made it all clear. Between the Georgia State decision and the University suit, it was the whole package.” Georgia law required the Legislature to discontinue appropriations to any white school which admitted black students. The suit raised the threat the University would be closed down. That same argument had been used about public schools.

“Many whites wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow if the public schools were closed,” Hollowell says. “But the University shutting down was quite another prospect.”

The case was Holmes vs. Danner (Danner was director of admissions). The decision was handed down in December, 1960. In January, 1961, Federal marshals accompanied Hollowell and his clients, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, to Athens, where they registered at the University. The Legislature did not cut off appropriations. The University did not close down.

Holmes later attended Emory University School of Medicine, where he is now a staff member, in addition to maintaining a private orthopedics practice. Hunter went from the University to The New Yorker Magazine, NBC, The New York Times and is now seen on PBS public affairs television programs.

When the first issue of ATLANTA appeared in May, 1961, the city was preparing for desegregation of its public school system. The Board of Education had faced the same choice the City had faced with its golf courses: desegregate or close. The choice was desegregation—but under an elaborate plan which resulted in an actual total of nine black high school students attending four formerly all-white schools.

The city was absorbing the impact of an agreement to desegregate lunch counters, struck between downtown merchants and Atlanta University Center students. But still on the books and in practice were ordinances requiring segregation in city parks, theaters and other “places of public assembly, where assembly is for charge or free.”

The 1960 sit-ins kept Hollowell busy. One weekend, he recalls, he and another black attorney, C. B. King, had 750 clients in jails in five counties. Dealing with this required not only mammoth legal efforts but the even more enormous task of finding and persuading property owners to pledge their property for bail bonds. Their clients included Martin Luther King, Jr., who had moved back to his native Atlanta from Montgomery and was arrested with students at a sit-in at Rich’s. Reports were that both Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon telephoned authorities on King’s behalf. Kennedy’s call, the story goes, came first, winning black votes for him. Hollowell, however, denies knowledge of any such telephone calls playing any part in King’s release. As attorney for King and others arrested, he relied not on political influence but on the legal system and his own professional skills.

The dam had begun to crumble. By the end of 1961, Georgia Tech had admitted a black student. The new Atlanta airport had been desegregated. Stouffer’s new Top of the Mart restaurant had opened—desegregated.

The next two years saw a flood tide of legal actions and ripple effects sweeping away most local and state laws separating the races. City ordinances requiring segregation in public places and at public assemblies were invalidated. Agnes Scott College and Oglethorpe University accepted black students’ applications. Black policemen were granted authority to arrest whites. Grady Hospital appointed its first black intern.

By 1963 City Hall was desegregated. Fulton County had its first elected black senator in the General Assembly. There were 144 black students in ten previously white Atlanta high schools. The barrier between black and white real estate was literally removed when the Supreme Court ordered the dismantling of barriers called “racial buffers” on Peyton and Harlan Roads. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution removed racial classifications in the want ads and obituary columns.

The focus of the Civil Rights Movement shifted to the Federal level, not to repeal laws which required racial segregation but to enact laws which would prohibit discrimination and provide enforcement of that prohibition. The Fair Housing Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 addressed many areas of life—education, public services, political participation, community relations. The Civil Rights Act, however, directly addressed the issue of employment.

Hollowell never had thought of working for the government, but when he was recruited to establish a field office in Atlanta for the EEOC, created by the Civil Rights Act, he accepted. It was the only Federal agency set up to serve the individual claiming harm by discrimination.

Only through the EEOC did the law confer upon a Federal agency the right to file suit to redress grievances, and this new law, through this agency, would most directly affect the greatest number of individuals. For a lawyer who wanted to influence and make law, it was an ideal position.

It was Hollowell who sent to Washington discrimination charges from which grew landmark legal decisions, putting flesh on the bare bones legal statement that “it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate in employment” because of race, creed, color, sex, religion or national origin. When a black man in North Carolina, Willie Griggs, filed a discrimination charge against Duke Power Company, Hollowell pursued the case to the Supreme Court. In Griggs vs. Duke Power, the Court ruled an employment qualification which tends to screen out more applicants of one race than another must be job-related and have some validity in predicting success on the job. That decision required realistic re-examination of qualifications for just about every job in the United States, including those in Federal, state and local governments.

Until 1972 the EEOC had no authority to take legal action in its own name. Amendments gave the Agency that authority. Hollowell’s Atlanta office was the first to go to Federal Court as plaintiff under the broader enforcement powers.

With typically careful understatement, Hollowell describes the atmosphere when he opened the EEOC Atlanta Regional Office: “There was a generally negative attitude in this region against government telling people how to conduct business.

“It was not always safe. In Birmingham an EEOC investigative team of black and white males had to run for their car. A white investigator in a textile plant where the secretary was the wife of the local police chief found himself locked up in jail for six hours. I recall driving down the highway with a white female staff member and having a big semi-tractor driven by a young white male try to force us off the highway. There were attempts at intimidation through Congressional offices, but I am happy to say that I found the Congressional investigations to be fair.”

The Civil Rights Movement today, Hollowell says, is “stagnated—but not without reason. You can’t stay at that high level of intensity exhibited in the Sixties. There must be a period of implementation, of developing strategies. We have made great strides in removing ostensible vestiges of discrimination, but right-thinking people, black and white, must be about the business of completing the job.

“The job is to achieve meaningful desegregation. In the Eighties, the emphasis will continue to be employment—that is critical—and also education, housing and certainly political education.”

The greatest strength of the civil rights movement in the Sixties was its exceptional leadership, says Hollowell, citing “the quality of the white leadership, the bond between the students, teachers and University officials in the black community, the cooperative relationship between young and mature civil rights activists.” He puts particular emphasis on Mayors Hartsfield and Allen, who were intent on trying to maintain an atmosphere in which the city could move forward. “It is to their credit that they were able to guide the city through what could have been a terrible time.”

The movement’s weaknesses, he reflects, were the inability of blacks to exert any political clout (Hollowell himself ran unsuccessfully for Superior Court judge in 1964), difficulty in “getting a coalescence on thought and action among all the different factions in the black community and, at times, the sheer numbers of persons involved.”

And there was real fear. In fact, Hollowell says, the tactic of non-violent civil disobedience (sitting in, “going limp”) grew out of recognition of violent reprisals. “There was no way for the movement to be a success through use of physical force. Nobody wanted to get hurt,” Hollowell says.

“Some were beaten and received other acts of physical violence, but most of those involved in demonstrations escaped without violence. The leaders of the movement were [philosophically] committed to non-violence and so could sell it as a particular way of accomplishing the goals.”

Louise Hollowell adds, “During the University of Georgia suit, I was just a little frightened.” But not for herself. “People were generally considerate of me personally. They would phone and say ‘Tell Mr. Hollowell to get you out of the house,’ that they were going to blow it up by midnight. When I got that call, I called the Police Chief [Herbert Jenkins], and he asked me, ‘Mrs. Hollowell, are you scared?’ I said, ‘Well, I am just a little frightened.’ He said they would send somebody out. For about two nights, they patrolled the house. Other than that, I never felt in any real danger.”

While not discounting the cost of her husband’s absences from home and his professional preoccupation, she doesn’t find the price was too high. “I have been very happy that he could make such a worthwhile contribution,” she insists. “There was so much to be done.”

Hollowell prefers not to characterize his feelings about his accomplishments as “pride” but rather “satisfaction.” His highest level of satisfaction, he insists, has come not from the far-reaching employment discrimination cases or even the history-making University of Georgia suit but in two criminal cases. In one, he successfully appealed the death sentence of a 15-year-old black youth. In the other, he gained the acquittal of Willie Nash, who had “confessed” to a crime after spending several hours in a wooded area with five carloads of police officers.

“The major change for me personally,”” reflects Hollowell, “is an inner peace, a peace that comes to people who have been relieved of the strain, the tension, the indignity of always having to decide if you can do this or that because of segregation laws. [There has been a] change in increased freedom of association, broadened flow of ideas, of viewing blacks—and women—as they move up into the business structure at all levels. Part of my life was trying to remove these shackles. It’s a state of mind that has changed. It’s the freedom to tackle a problem, void of that hard-case steel of segregation that always had to be gotten rid of before you could get to the problem.”

The priorities for the future, Hollowell believes, are increased political participation, better education for the masses and an increased “sense of history.” He says, however, there are pressing needs to find “ways to remove the scourge of drugs and limit the amount of crime.”

“If we fail in that at any point, we will have trouble in implementing rights. We are servants of the people, and only to the extent that we perform well, do we merit the opportunity to serve and lead.”