Before Franklin shattered the glass ceiling of segregation, he served in the U.S. Air Force as an emergency equipment specialist during the Korean Conflict for four years on active duty and three years as a reservist.
“I joined in 1951 and served until I was discharged from active duty in 1955,” Franklin said. “From ’55 to ’58, I was in the reserves. Of course, at that time, black folks were not allowed in the Alabama National Guard. I wanted to go in the National Guard, but they wouldn’t let me.”
During his time in service, Franklin capitalized on an opportunity that would serve as a precursor to the long journey ahead.
“One day, we were sitting down taking a break,” Franklin said. “Our drill sergeant asked us what we would like to do. I put my hand up and asked to take the GED. He told me I was excused from drill. I went down and passed the test on my first try. I got the scores back and I was shocked. I wasn’t a dumb kid because I loved to read, but like a lot of kids, I (struggled with) math and science. I made a better score on the GED in math and science than I ever thought possible.”
After separating from the military, Franklin attended Alabama State College where he graduated in 1962 with honors with a degree in government and psychology.
“My ambition was to become a lawyer and that’s how I met up with Fred Gray, who handled my case against Auburn,” Franklin said. “In the state of Alabama in those days, the bar association had this policy (stating) you must have five lawyers who have been practicing in the state for five years to verify your character prior to being admitted to law school. Fred was one of the lawyers I had met that I knew in Montgomery because he had handled a lot of Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s cases.”
Franklin noted he wasn’t sure what to expect when Gray presented his proposal to him during their meeting.
“When I went to him to verify my character, he asked me, ‘Why don’t you go to Auburn?” Franklin said. “I told him that was the last school I ever wanted to go to. At that time, Auburn’s heavy emphasis was on agriculture and I was never interested in agriculture.”
After Gray explained to Franklin the importance of desegregating Auburn and the historical significance behind the University of Alabama’s recent desegregation efforts, Franklin said he reluctantly agreed to put in an application to Auburn.
“They wanted me to desegregate Auburn because (Gray) said they had checked my record,” Franklin said. “He told me, ‘First of all, you’re married, so they can’t say you’re over here for the girls. You served your country and you were honorably discharged. You graduated from Alabama State with honors and you don’t have a jail record. There’s nothing Auburn can use against you to keep you out of school.”
Once Auburn turned down the application, the stage was set for a federal court case presided over by U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama Judge Frank Johnson.
“When I filed suit against Auburn, they said they didn’t turn me down because I was black,” Franklin said. “They turned me down because Alabama State College wasn’t accredited at that time. I’ll never forget it as long as I live, the State Superintendent of Education Dr. Austin R. Meadows stated to the court that the reason Alabama State and Alabama A&M, two predominately black institutions, were not accredited was because the state legislature would not afford adequate funding for those two schools that they do for the white schools. My lawyer whispered to me, ‘Hell, we just won our case.’ Sure enough, Johnson ruled in our favor.”
While he achieved victory in the case, Franklin’s fight wasn’t finished. When he tried to apply for a dorm room at Auburn, another rejection resulted in a second court case.
“I can’t remember the name of the guy who testified for Auburn, but he said most graduate students did not live on campus,” Franklin said. “Judge Johnson asked him where they lived and he told him they either lived in apartments or people rented out rooms to them. The judge asked how graduate students found out about these rooms that are available. He told the judge the Realtors notify the university that these places are available for student rental.”
Franklin said once Johnson had determined the university had failed to make the listing available to him, he had won his second case.
When Franklin arrived on campus, he discovered he’d been assigned an entire wing of a dormitory all to himself.
“I was the only student with a key to Magnolia Hall,” he said. “Eventually, there were a couple of black students who were assigned rooms there with me, but I was hardly at the dorm because my wife had given birth to my son two-and-a-half weeks after I enrolled.”
Despite state troopers present solely to prevent students from welcoming him there and a few minor incidents with less-than-friendly people, Franklin observed that most people were supportive of his educational pursuits.
While Franklin did not graduate from Auburn, he eventually completed his master’s degree at University of Denver where he attended college alongside eventual Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
“She was one of the smartest women I believe I’ve ever met,” Franklin said.
After spending nearly three decades teaching, he began working at Terry’s Metropolitan Mortuary. Franklin, now 81, said he hopes the younger generation takes advantage of the opportunities made available courtesy of the struggles of all who fought for equality during the Civil Rights Movement.
“I’m always shocked when I hear about someone who has shot someone or killed someone,” Franklin said. “It really bothers me because of the struggles we all went through. I’m not just talking about myself — I’m talking about all the people who shared in the struggle for human and civil rights. So many of them died to make things better for everybody. It gets on my nerves to see young people with their guns and their little gangs, stuff like that, instead of taking advantage of the education that’s offered now. It disturbs me.”
For his efforts, Franklin has received multiple accolades, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Talladega County Chapter of the NAACP Jan. 1, 2012, and an honorary doctorate degree from Auburn in 2001.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Franklin said. “In the ‘60s, African Americans were expected to make a contribution to eradicate racism and segregation. Whatever talent you had, you used it because there’s always somebody that could use that talent. Mine just happened to be academics. I’m proud that I was able to make an impact on others and inspire them to do their best.”
Contact Shane Dunaway at firstname.lastname@example.org.