On January 4, 1964, Harold A. Franklin (1932-2021) became the first African American student to attend Auburn University (AU), located in Auburn, Lee County. His admission followed a lengthy legal dispute, as university and state officials coordinated efforts to prevent Franklin’s enrollment because of the color of his skin. An active member of the NAACP, Franklin participated in Black voter registration and election education drives, and this civil rights activism motivated his decision to pursue a career in higher education. For nearly 30 years, Franklin taught courses on Black history and Africana Studies at several Historically Black Colleges and Universities, mentoring several generations of Black college students. During the last decades of his life, Franklin delivered hundreds of speeches sharing his experiences and stressing the importance of moral character, hard work, and education.
Franklin was born in Talladega, Talladega County, on November 2, 1932, to George Franklin Sr., who worked for the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind, and piano teacher Henrietta Eugenia Williams Franklin. He was one of 10 children, including a twin brother. Franklin’s father had been abandoned by his parents at birth and quit school before completing the sixth grade. He worked multiple jobs, including janitor, railroad man, cook, and restaurant manager and owner. The Franklin family also owned a small farm and ran a funeral home in Talladega, where Franklin would later work. As a child, he performed farm chores before and after school. Farm life, however, never appealed to Franklin, who preferred reading books. His mother encouraged him to seek opportunities beyond the family farm and outside of Alabama, and he often dreamt of becoming an attorney and following in the footsteps of famed civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall.
In 1951, Franklin dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Air Force and earned a Graduate Equivalent Diploma during his deployment at bases across the nation. His travels exposed him to a world beyond Alabama and its system of racial segregation. But he also realized that racism was an endemic national problem that existed beyond Alabama and the South. That experience taught him how much race relations nationally needed to improve and the potential for change even in Alabama. He grew determined to return home and join the growing civil rights movement.
In 1958, following the completion of his military service, Franklin used the G.I. Bill to enroll at Alabama State College (present-day Alabama State University, or ASU) in Montgomery, Montgomery County. In 1961, Franklin’s ASU professors put him into contact with civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who at the time was one of the few Black attorneys practicing in the Montgomery area. Gray advised Franklin that his grades were not strong enough for him to gain entry to the University of Alabama‘s law school in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County. At that time, UA only admitted white students, and Gray did not believe that Franklin’s case would overturn the school’s discriminatory admissions policy. Instead, Gray advised Franklin to apply to Auburn’s graduate government and history program. If denied admission, Franklin’s military service and marriage would make him an ideal applicant to challenge the school’s discriminatory admission policies. (White college administrators typically pandered to white fears of relations between unmarried Black men and white female students in their reasons for refusing Black men admission.)
Initially, Franklin resisted applying to Auburn, given its focus on agricultural education and its derogatory reputation as a “cow college.” In November 1962, however, he applied to graduate school at Auburn. In December 1962, he graduated from ASU with honors, earning a bachelor of arts in government and history, and began selling insurance in Montgomery. That same year Franklin married Lilla Mae Sherman, with whom he would have one son. On January 10, 1963, William Parker, Auburn’s Dean of the Graduate School, rejected Franklin’s application, saying the school lacked a graduate government program. Franklin appealed the decision, citing that he now intended to apply only to the graduate history program. This time, Parker claimed that Franklin’s ASU degree was invalid because the school was not accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Franklin was not the first Black student to apply and be denied for admission to Auburn. For decades, Auburn had denied admission to qualified Black candidates. Auburn president Ralph Brown Draughon collaborated with Alabama public safety officials to produce surveillance reports on Black candidates to gather information then used to deny their admission.
On August 26, 1963, Gray, with assistance from NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorneys, filed suit in federal court, in Franklin v. Parker, arguing that Auburn had denied Franklin’s admission solely because of his race. That November, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. issued an injunction restraining Parker from refusing Franklin’s admission. Johnson determined that Auburn “had deliberately set out to bar the plaintiff from Auburn because he is a Negro.” Draughon then issued a new policy that graduate students would no longer be housed in Magnolia Hall, the only men’s dormitory. Gray sued the school again, and on January 3, 1964, Johnson ordered Auburn to house Franklin like every other student.
Franklin registered for classes on a Saturday, January 4, 1964. Alabama governor George C. Wallace dispatched Alabama State Troopers to Auburn hoping to obstruct Franklin’s admission. Wallace refused to provide Franklin with a bodyguard and ordered troopers to arrest any federal agent who accompanied him. Gray and Franklin agreed to have their baggage searched by federal agents. A state law enforcement official tried to plant a handgun in Franklin’s briefcase, hoping that federal agents would discover the weapon and arrest Franklin, but Gray discovered the handgun before the search began. Fearing student and community demonstrations might erupt in violence and damage the university’s reputation, Auburn president Draughon closed the campus to all except authorized faculty, staff, students, law enforcement officers, and reporters. A handful of students taunted and jeered Franklin as he walked toward the campus library to attend orientation and to register for classes. State troopers under Wallace’s direction halted Franklin and asked to see his student identification card to enter the library. Franklin, who had not yet attended the orientation, lacked any school identification. Eventually, a sympathetic state trooper accepted Franklin’s driver’s license as proof of his identity and permitted him to enter the building. That evening, Wallace issued demeaning statements about Franklin to the news media.
Franklin’s experience after admission proved equally frustrating and humiliating. The university isolated Franklin in the west wing of Magnolia Hall. Most students ignored Franklin, who spent much of his time commuting from Montgomery to be with his wife, who was expecting the birth of their first child. Franklin, who was deeply interested in literature, art, and music, was strongly discouraged from participating in extracurricular clubs, lectures, and meetings. Administrators expected Franklin to attend class, dine alone, and return to his dormitory nightly with little interaction with his white peers. Franklin quickly noticed that the only Black people on campus besides himself were janitorial and dining hall staff who usually lived in racially segregated communities. During his second year of coursework, Auburn admitted two other Black students and Franklin found some company.
Franklin found the Department of History’s graduate curriculum to be limited and ill-suited for his specific interests, with no courses in African American or African history. Nonetheless, Franklin completed the required graduate coursework despite comments from History chair Malcolm McMillan that suggested Franklin’s background hampered his abilities as a student. Years later, Franklin recalled enjoying the coursework and getting along fine with the program’s all-white graduate students. He made several lifelong white friends, including Auburn Plainsman student staff writers Bobby Boettcher and Jim Dinsmore, who helped buffer Franklin from other racist students and faculty.
Like other graduate students, Franklin needed to write and defend a research thesis. Although Franklin hoped to write his thesis on the history of the American civil rights movement, his thesis advisor, Ed Williamson, reportedly told him that the topic was too controversial and steered him toward alternative topics. Finally, Franklin received permission to write a history of Alabama State University. After conducting research and preparing a draft, Williamson repeatedly asked Franklin to revise the document. Franklin became frustrated because he felt that his work had been held to a higher or different standard than the program’s white students. For two years, Franklin presented revisions but could not meet his advisor’s expectation. In fact, Franklin recalled a faculty member once telling him that because he was the first Black student, “everyone” would read his thesis and had to be better than other graduate research projects. Franklin believed that history faculty never intended to allow him to graduate because his admission had embarrassed President Draughon, a history faculty member. Given the atmosphere and lack of support, Franklin withdrew from Auburn in 1969, convinced that he would never graduate.
Any hope for improved race relations in the South were dealt a serious blow with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the year prior to Franklin’s graduation. Auburn’s silence following the murder further soured Franklin. Although Auburn admitted several Black students who graduated in the years that followed Franklin’s enrollment, he left Auburn convinced that university faculty and administrators had collaborated to prevent him from becoming the school’s first Black graduate. Williamson and other History faculty, some of whom were viewed as among the most liberal, believed that Franklin had chosen to move on for personal reasons, and this became the common narrative. The faculty likely felt enormous pressure from the campus administration to impede Franklin’s graduation or risk losing their positions, as Auburn had previously reprimanded and fired professors who publicly endorsed racial integration.
After withdrawing from Auburn, Franklin took a much-needed break from graduate school, working several jobs, teaching, and tutoring students before resuming his pursuit of a graduate degree. He also directed Talladega College‘s Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council and wrote a series of voter education pamphlets and held numerous voter education workshops to assist newly registered Black voters. In 1974, Franklin enrolled at the University of Denver, earning a master’s degree in international studies and studying alongside Birmingham native and future U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In 1976, Franklin returned to Alabama and began a long and influential career teaching at Talladega College. He also taught courses in Black history and culture at North Carolina A&T University, Tuskegee University, and Alabama State University. Franklin also managed the Talladega College program that provided encouragement and resources to improve high school graduation rates. Foremost, Franklin mentored thousands of Black students, who respected him as someone who had paid a personal cost for his civil rights activism. His life story and social activism inspired multiple generations of African American students to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, former students recall that Franklin instilled in them a sense of personal pride and dignity that helped them better understand their Black heritage and rightful demands for civil and racial equality. He retired from teaching in 1992 but continued to work at his family’s funeral home.
For decades, Franklin harbored ill feelings toward Auburn. In 2001, the university awarded Franklin an honorary doctoral degree but failed to acknowledge its role in his failed earlier attempt to earn a master’s in history. In 2008, Black student leaders and alumni established the Harold Franklin Society to improve campus race relations and to recruit Blacks to the university, which continues to have very low Black student enrollment. The organization also created a scholarship that honor’s Franklin’s legacy. In 2014, Auburn organized several high-profile events to honor Franklin during the 50th anniversary of his matriculation. The university erected a bronze historical marker near the campus library that provides an overview of Franklin’s admission and tenure but makes no mention of the school’s role in obstructing that admission and does not mention why Franklin left without earning a degree. In the fall of 2019, members of the Auburn University Department of History invited Franklin to defend the thesis he had penned more than 50 years earlier.
On February 16, 2020, Franklin returned to Auburn and successfully defended his treatise on the history of Alabama State University. He received his degree and joined other graduate students at the Fall 2020 commencement. Franklin died on September 9, 2021. He was buried in Pine Hill Memorial Park in Talladega.