UGA research explores little-known chapter in college desegregation

Many of the battles to desegregate Southern colleges and universities were fought in public, but efforts to desegregate the standardized testing that is often a prerequisite to admission have, until now, received little attention. Now, a new University of Georgia study reveals how two men traveled the Deep South, facing hostility and risking violence, to ensure that students received fair and impartial treatment.
“We know a lot of the big stories of the civil rights era, but this is a smaller, virtually unknown one,” said study author Jan Bates Wheeler, associate director for accreditation at the UGA Office of Institutional Effectiveness. “It’s an example of how a few people put forth a lot of effort at great personal risk to make higher education available to people who were being denied access.”

College entrance exams such as the SAT require that students be tested impartially and under the same conditions. In the segregated South of the early 1960s, however, black students were routinely turned away from testing sites, which were almost always at all-white high schools or colleges. Wheeler notes that some colleges and universities required the SAT as prerequisite to admission purely to create a nearly insurmountable hurdle for prospective black students.

In response to such abuses, the College Board, the not-for-profit organization that administers the SAT, began an ambitious campaign in 1960 to desegregate the testing centers. The men who designed the plan intentionally kept the effort from the public. “They didn’t want publicity because they knew that it would further solidify the massive resistance against school desegregation,” Wheeler said. “Even after they were successful, they didn’t want a history written because they didn’t want the school administrators who had cooperated with them to get into trouble.”

Wheeler examined more than 10,000 pages of letters, memos and reports to create the first comprehensive history of what was called a “campaign of quiet persuasion” to desegregate testing centers in the Deep South. The effort was led by the late Ben Cameron Jr. of Sewanee, Tenn., a Southern liberal who — in a telling display of the changes that were roiling the South — was the son and namesake of the judge from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit who worked to prevent James Meredith from becoming the first black student at the University of Mississippi.

Between 1960 and 1965, Cameron and staff member Ben Gibson of Atlanta traveled to nearly every school district in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina to push for desegregation of testing centers. They met with school principals and other officials who oversaw the centers and presented them with two options: maintain a desegregated testing center with equal treatment for all or lose the prestige and convenience associated with being a testing center.

By 1965, Cameron and Gibson had succeeded in their “campaign of quiet persuasion.” They received input from an advisory committee that included well-known figures such as Ralph McGill, publisher of The Atlanta Constitution, and Stephen Wright, president of Fisk University, but traveled the South on their site visits alone. “They were committed to creating a level playing field for all students,” Wheeler said. “They stuck to their principles when it would have been easier not to.”