Book Review of 'Saving the Soul of Georgia,' in The Journal of American History

This compelling biography of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s chief attorney in Georgia during the 1950s and 1960s delivers on the promise of its title. Donald L. Hollowell fought the good fight, and if he alone could not save the soul of Georgia from segregationist moral bankruptcy, his own soul never wavered.

Inexplicably lesser known in the historical pantheon of civil rights lawyers, Hollowell rightly joins the ranks of Thurgood Marshall (with whom Hollowell collaborated), Derrick Bell, Constance Baker Motley, and others who challenged the legal apparatus of segregation through the courts. Hollowell’s best-known work as a lawyer is his role in the desegregation of the University of Georgia, permitting Hamilton E. Holmes and Charlayne Hunter to enroll in the state’s flagship university in 1961. Maurice C. Daniels aptly terms this Hollowell’s “most celebrated victory” (p. 68). In belated recognition of Hollowell’s accomplishments the University of Georgia established the Hollowell Distinguished Professorship of Social Justice and Civil Rights Studies, due in no small part to Daniels’s advocacy.

This biography recounts Hollowell’s extraordinary work not only attacking racist segregation policy in Georgia and representing of Martin Luther King Jr. but also defending blacks caught up in a criminal justice system that woefully ignored constitutional protections. Among the several cases recounted here, Hollowell once won a stay of execution by questioning the exclusion of blacks from juries, a tactic he often proved through meticulous review of county jury records. This was no small task: Georgia has the second-largest number of counties of any state.

With his close attention to court proceedings, Daniels penetrates the often-dense tangle of legal procedure to demonstrate that Hollowell’s successes required more than technical knowledge of law and procedure. Hollowell knew that strategy, political allies, and careful selection of plaintiffs mattered a great deal, and he effectively employed these tools. In Daniels’s hands, court proceedings come to life with a narrative accessible to lawyers and nonlawyers alike. Daniels includes excerpts from trial transcripts, for example (pp. 77–78), allowing deeper characterization of the events and personalities in the struggle for civil rights in Georgia. A foreword by Vernon E. Jordan Jr. adds a personal recollection of the man Jordan knew as “Mr. Civil Rights.” The inclusion of twenty-seven carefully selected photographs further brings to life one of the best biographies of the civil rights era.

Daniels also produced, with Derrick P. Aldridge, the civil rights documentary Donald L. Hollowell: Foot Soldier for Equal Justice (2010), a highly recommended accompaniment to this biography.

Polly J. Price
Emory University School of Law
Atlanta, Georgia