Hollowell, Donald L.

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Donald L. Hollowell



Donald L. Hollowell was a distinguished civil rights attorney who successfully argued several notable court cases that helped end segregation in the American South. As a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Hollowell quickly rose to prominence for his expert legal strategies and confidence in the courtroom. He knew Martin Luther King Jr.—on one occasion even securing King's release from a Georgia state prison—and was an ally and confidant of many other notable leaders in the civil rights struggle. "Not only did he have courage, but he had a brilliant legal mind," onetime NAACP President Julian Bond wrote of him in a tribute published a few years before his death, The Sacred Call, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Julie B. Hairston. "He outstripped, out-argued, out-appeared these famous so-called great constitutional lawyers who had erected this barrier of segregation throughout the South. They had the reputation, but Hollowell had the goods."

Hollowell was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1917. As a teen, he was told to quit school by his father in order to work full-time to support the family, and Hollowell enlisted in the U.S. Army instead. He served six years with the famous Tenth Cavalry, an all-black regiment dating back to 1866 whose members were dubbed "Buffalo Soldiers" by the Kiowa Indians. During his stint in the service, Hollowell earned a high school diploma, and upon his discharge enrolled at Lane College, a historically black college in Jackson, Tennessee. He was a starting quarterback on its Dragons football team, but re-enlisted in the military when the United States entered World War II in late 1941. He saw combat in Europe and reached the rank of captain.

Hollowell returned to Lane after the war, and graduated in 1947. He earned a law degree from the law school of Loyola University in Chicago in 1951, and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, that same year. It was an era of deeply institutionalized racism in the American South, and Hollowell was one of just a dozen black lawyers in the city. Deeply interested in challenging the series of local ordinances known as the Jim Crow laws that relegated African Americans to the status of second-class citizens, he became involved in several notable court cases seeking to end discrimination. His first major case came in 1955, when he served as lead attorney on Ward v. Regents. He argued on behalf of Horace T. Ward, an African-American applicant to the University of Georgia School of Law who had been rejected for admission. The University barred black students at all levels, and the case attracted widespread attention. A federal court sided with the school, however, in ruling that Ward had not fulfilled the necessary entrance requirements.

Hollowell knew Martin Luther King Jr., and was asked to help out when King was arrested at a 1960 protest, and then sentenced to four months on a misdemeanor charge involving his driver's license. Hollowell secured King's release from Reidsville State Prison thanks to arguments presented to the Georgia Court of Appeals, but future instances when King was jailed would require White House intervention. When asked what King was like as a client, Hollowell replied that the legendary civil rights leader was "always cooperative," he said in a Fulton County Daily Report interview. "He'd have his own decision, but we never had any problem with having him to go along with what we were suggesting in the situation."

Hollowell mounted a second challenge to the University of Georgia's discriminatory policies when he took on another test case, this one involving two gifted students, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, who applied for admission to the undergraduate division of the school in 1959, but were turned down. Again, the University maintained that they had been rejected by admissions officers for reasons other than the color of their skin. Holmes v. Danner went to trial in U.S. District Court in December of 1960, and this time the judge ruled in the students' favor. Hunter and Holmes's first week of classes made national headlines because of the riots that erupted on campus, and Hollowell and his wife received harassing telephone calls and even death threats. Holmes went on to become the first black graduate of Emory University's medical school, and Hunter the pioneering broadcast journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

Hollowell won other successful desegregation cases, including one involving public transportation in Macon, Georgia, and another that forced Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta to hire African-American doctors and served as a landmark decision that integrated hospitals across the United States. With the ostensible end of the civil rights struggle that came with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the following year's Voting Rights Act, Hollowell moved on to a federal appointment. There were a number of new government agencies created to enforce the anti-discrimination laws, and one of them was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which monitored the workplace. In 1966, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Hollowell as the first director of the EEOC's Southeastern office, a job he held for the next nineteen years.

A respected civic leader in Atlanta, Hollowell was known as the top civil rights lawyer in Georgia, and one of the best in the South. In both his private practice and federal job, he worked to train a younger generation of civil rights attorneys. One of them was Vernon Jordan, who served as director of the National Urban League and advisor to two U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Hollowell remained active in various civil rights organizations, and served as president of the Voter Education Project from 1971 to 1986. During his tenure, the number of registered African-American voters climbed from 3 million to 5.5 million.

Hollowell's wife, Louise Thornton Hollowell, was a professor of English at Morris Brown College. The couple, who had no children, never moved out of the Atlanta house they purchased in 1961. Hollowell died on December 27, 2004, of heart failure at the age of 87. His funeral at Morehouse College was a three-hour affair in which he was eulogized by more than twenty speakers, including Hunter-Gault, Jordan, and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young. Hollowell's onetime law-firm partner, Marvin Arrington, told the gathering that Hollowell was a hero in the civil rights struggle whose legal brilliance helped end desegregation in the South. "Every time you drink out of a water fountain that doesn't have 'black' and 'white,'" Arrington said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "you ought to say 'Thank you, Don.'"

At a Glance …

Born Donald Lee Hollowell on December 19, '1917, in Wichita, KS; died of heart failure on December 27, 2004, in Atlanta, GA; son of a janitor; married Louise Thornton (a professor of English). Education: Lane College, Jackson, TN, BA, 1947; Loyola University, JD, 1951. Military service: U.S. Army, Tenth Cavalry, c. 1935–41; served again in the U.S. Army during World War II; reached rank of captain; 1941–45.

Career: Attorney, Atlanta, GA, 1951–65; argued cases with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1955–65; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Southeastern office, director, 1966–85; Voter Education Project, president, 1971–86.



Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 24, 2000, p. JD5; December 29, 2004, p. A1; January 1, 2005, p. C1.

Fulton County Daily Report, December 30, 2004.