Donald Lee Hollowell: A Civil Rights Champion

The Christmas holidays of 1917 brought more than just presents into the Wichita, Kansas home of Ocenia and Harrison Hollowell. On December 19 it also brought their third child Donald.

As he was preparing for his senior year in high school, his father asked him to get a full-time job to help support the family. In an act of resentment, Hollowell enlisted in the army at age 17, serving in the Tenth Calvary, which was commonly known as the Buffalo Soldiers. He would serve three years and go on to attend attend Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee where he excelled both academically and as a three-sport athlete. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. While stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia he met and married Louise (née Thornton) Hollowell before going off to combat. After the service, where he had earned the rank of captain, he returned to Lane graduating magna cum laude in 1947. It was in college and in the Army where he first encountered racial prejudice.

Traveling through the south to play football games against other Negro schools brought Hollowell into contact with a “society whose primary passion seemed to be the isolation of the races and the demeaning of all Negro citizens in every imaginable way.” Worse, the barrage of racial indignities he experienced in the Army – serving in the segregated Tenth Calvary Regiment, being relegated to eat in the kitchen, instead of the mess with other officers, and being ushered out of the base’s movie theater because he was Negro - had demoralized his spirit. He yearned for a “calm and financially stable future” and he thought that as a dentist he could “operate comfortably within a segregated system.”

His vocational aspiration changed, however, when, as a delegate to the 1946 convocation of the Negro Youth Conference, he heard the inspiring words of Paul Robeson. The law, he reasoned, was his calling and he went on to earn his law degree from Loyola University in Chicago in 1951.

Hollowell would establish his law practice in Atlanta in 1952. Vernon Jordan, who became his law clerk thought “there was no better teacher and mentor. He was, quite simply, one of the most gifted trial lawyers in all of Georgia.” He was “perfectly suited to the difficult task” of handling “the most troubling moral and social issues” of the day and the need for his “keen intellect and quiet determination” was frequent and varied. Hollowell came to the aid of those facing capital punishment. He would represent college students involved in the sit-in protests. He associated with C. B. King in Albany to defend the legal rights of protestors in that city. He would serve as lead counsel in the effort to obtain the admission of the first black student to the University of Georgia Law School. He conducted the legal challenge to the admissions policies of Georgia State College of Business Administration (now Georgia State University). His representation in civil rights cases reached its apex, however, in 1961 in another case involving admission to higher education, once again involving the state’s flagship institution.

Hollowell served as lead counsel in the lawsuit seeking to gain the admission of the first students of color to the University of Georgia. Over the course of five days of hearings, the “cool and masterful way” Hollowell handled the case left a powerful impression on all those present. It also resulted in an order from Judge William Augustus Bootle outlawing the school’s discriminatory admission policies finding that “the two plaintiffs are fully qualified and would already have been admitted had it not been for their race and color.” After several months of protracted appeals, the matter concluded with the registration of Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter.

Perhaps, the words of Julian Bond, one who benefited from his legal acumen best captures his impact:

If it had not been for Don Hollowell, black Georgians wouldn’t have advanced as far as we have. . . Not only did he have the courage, but he also had a brilliant legal mind. He…out-argued…these so-called great constitutional lawyers who had erected this barrier of segregation throughout the South. They had the reputation, but Hollowell had the goods.

In 1966, Hollowell would be appointed Regional Director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by President Lyndon Johnson, a post he would hold for nearly twenty years. He returned to private practice and succumbed to heart failure on December 27, 2004.

This article is adapted from Bending the Arc: Georgia Lawyers in the Pursuit of Social Justice, Georgia Bar Journal, April 2018 at 31 (Copyright © Derrick Alexander Pope). All rights reserved. Photos provided courtesy of the Archives Division, Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.

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