Talladega native Harold A. Franklin put himself on the line a half-century ago to break the color barrier at Auburn University, to pave the way for a better life for African Americans who came after him.
The year 1963 had been pivotal in the civil rights movement. Gov. George Wallace’s “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” inaugural address in January was followed by a series of tumultuous events. It was the year Bull Conner’s police dogs and fire hoses were seen around the world; the year Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi, and four little girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham. It was the year Martin Luther King, Jr., was put behind bars in a Birmingham jail, and the year he gave his “I have a dream” speech in Washington.
People were arrested in Selma for encouraging people to register to vote. Vivian Malone and James Hood were the first black students to register at the University of Alabama on the day Gov. Wallace symbolically stood in the schoolhouse door. Silent protests were held at lunch counters across the South. And President John Kennedy, seen by many as the man who would bring change in the struggle for equality, was slain in Dallas in November.
It was in that atmosphere that Franklin agreed to enroll at Auburn, to do his part to help open up new territory in the movement. On Jan. 4, 1964, he was escorted by state troopers to become an Auburn graduate student.
It also took two court cases to get him enrolled and to get him a dormitory room, as he worked with attorney Fred Gray and NAACP leaders to take his place on campus.
At the time he was married, an expectant father, a veteran of the Korean War, had no jail record and was an honor graduate of Alabama State, all of which made him an ideal candidate for admission to Auburn’s graduate school. While recalling an atmosphere of encouragement and support on campus, he also remembers some name-calling and one occasion when he was spat upon.
He taught at Alabama State, Tuskegee and Talladega College before retiring from education, and he is well remembered at Auburn.
The university has awarded Franklin an honorary doctorate, and a campus organization founded in 2008 bears his name. The Harold A. Franklin Society draws inspiration from his courage and perseverance to serve minority male students at Auburn. The goal is to foster growth in academic, social and professional areas, and increase the retention rate at the school.
Franklin, Gray and retired Federal Judge U.W. Clemon are to be part of a discussion forum later this month as part of a year-long series of events marking desegregation at Auburn, an opportunity for new generations to learn about history from people who helped change its course.
Franklin doesn’t regret what he did, but he is disturbed to see so many young people today fail to take advantage of their hard-won opportunities to get an education.
African Americans at the time were expected to make a contribution to eradicate racism with whatever talent they had, and he says his talent happened to be academics.
We would add to that the words courage, commitment and perseverance.