Despite legal and physical threats, Hunter and Holmes found support from Atlanta’s and Athens’s civil rights organizations. The ACCA kept a nightly patrol of Hunter’s Atlanta home, and leaders escorted both students to and from campus. Rioting peaked on the night of January 11, following a narrow loss by the UGA basketball team to rival Georgia Tech. In what the Athens chief of police dismissed as “organized rowdyism led by strangers from out of the city,” more than a thousand rioters surrounded the girls’ dormitory where Hunter lived, throwing rocks at windows and yelling lewd taunts. Police responded to the rioters with tear gas and fire hoses, but the violence provided Vandiver and segregationist officials with an excuse. The university suspended Hunter and Holmes, citing the personal safety of the student population. In response, several hundred faculty members at UGA insisted that Hunter and Holmes be allowed to return to classes. Judge Bootle agreed, ordering the university to revoke the suspension and enjoining the state from cutting off funds to UGA. On January 14, amid police supervision and threats of dismissal for any student participating in a demonstration, Hunter and Holmes returned, leaving Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina as the only states with segregated state universities.
In Alabama, state officials panicked—the events in Athens recalled the attempted integration of the University of Alabama five years earlier. Autherine Lucy won admission to the university, but after riots broke out, officials suspended her, claiming that her presence on campus threatened the safety of all students. As the Birmingham News noted, Alabama’s governor John Patterson could be the next southern political leader to face the challenge of integration. On January 17, Patterson asked the Alabama state legislature to give him explicit authority to close any public school ordered to integrate. He told reporters, “[Before] I submit to integration I would be for closing schools,” and he commended fellow obstructionist governors Orval Faubus of Arkansas and Jimmie Davis of Louisiana. Patterson promised, “I’ll be right there with them.”
Despite Patterson’s warnings, at least some Alabamians considered school integration inevitable. The Birmingham News editorialized, “It long has been judicial history now, that when qualified Negroes apply for entry into Southern public universities, federal judges … ultimately will hand down only one ruling.” While the paper feared that similar decisions, if made in Alabama, might cause “more pain and hardship,” federal court orders made integration an “unavoidable” fact. As southern states attempted to stall, delay, and circumvent federal integration statutes, the pressure of the civil rights movement brought continued injustice to public attention.