Harold A. Franklin, the first African American student to enroll at Auburn University, successfully defended his master’s thesis — which he wrote in 1969 — last week and will walk at graduation this spring.
In a relatively small ceremony on Feb. 19, faculty from the history department listened to Franklin defend his thesis 51 years after he wrote it.
“They tell me it’s important because it marks 50 years since desegregation,” Franklin said. “But at least I could desegregate this school and get that out of the way.”
Despite being denied the opportunity to graduate from Auburn, Franklin is now a retired professor whose nearly 30-year academic career led him to leadership positions in some of the South’s most well-known universities.
Last week’s ceremony in Thach Hall was mostly an honorary procedure meant to show that the history department, which originally rejected Franklin’s multiple attempts to defend his thesis, acknowledged their own wrongdoing.
At the same time, this was a formal master’s thesis defense complete with a committee.
It was also a chance for current faculty members to listen to Franklin’s story in person and learn from his experiences.
Keith Hebert, associate professor, organized much of the event and was a part of the defense committee.
“Harold Franklin’s story is a triumphant one,” Hebert said. “He’s the one who integrated Auburn University, and that’s a wonderful story to tell. But we really need to tell the full story of that, which is that after he came here, Auburn University did a number of things to try to obstruct his education and to try to push him out of campus life.”
Even before he was accepted, Auburn University and its then-president Ralph Brown Draughon tried to obstruct Franklin’s education.
Franklin first applied to Auburn after graduating from Alabama State College, now Alabama State University, in 1962 with a degree in psychology and government.
His initial application was rejected in January of the following year on the basis that the University did not have a government graduate program.
A month later, Franklin’s application was rejected again, citing ASC’s lack of accreditation.
This was a common tactic used by Southern states and universities to continue a system of educational segregation even after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954.
However, in the summer of 1963, Franklin and his attorney Fred Gray — a prominent civil rights attorney who had, among other things, defended Martin Luther King Jr. in court and defended the Selma to Montgomery marchers at the Supreme Court — filed a class-action lawsuit against the school.
In November 1963, the court ruled that Auburn had no right to deny entry to Franklin since the state of Alabama had allowed the accreditation of predominantly black schools like ASC to lapse while maintaining the accreditation of white-only public schools.
So, Draughon officially accepted Franklin’s application, and he was set to register for classes for the upcoming spring semester of 1964.
Franklin arrived on campus on Jan. 4, 1964, a Saturday, to register for classes in the library which now bears the name of the president who initially rejected his application.
Draughon took extreme precautions before this day to ensure the safety of students, specifically Franklin.
Students returning to Auburn after winter break had to sign waivers agreeing to not bring firearms to campus and to not congregate in large groups.
A special area was set up on campus for authorized media so as to create a good relationship with the expected journalists who would cover the historic event.
Franklin was even given a personal detail of federal and University guards to escort him on campus.
However, on the morning that Franklin was to register for classes, 100 state troopers arrived on campus on the orders of Gov. George Wallace. They were told to arrest any federal agent or unauthorized person attempting to enter campus.
Franklin and Gray first went to the Auburn Methodist Church where FBI agents searched the incoming graduate student’s bag. They did this so the agents would be able to testify on Franklin’s behalf in case someone attempted to plant a gun on him, as had been done to James Meredith, the first African-American student admitted to the University of Mississippi.
Franklin was then escorted onto campus by Auburn’s director of development, Joseph Sarver. Early in the afternoon, Franklin and Sarver arrived at Magnolia Hall, where an entire wing had been cleared out for Franklin — something he said he didn’t mind since he preferred to read when it was quiet.
Next, Franklin and Sarver tried to go to the library, but state troopers, under the guise of treating Franklin like any other student, barred Sarver from continuing with him.
Other than a barrage of journalists, the rest of the day reportedly went smoothly. An hour after he went into the library, Franklin was officially a registered Auburn student.
An iconic picture was taken of Franklin behind Samford after he left the library that day. In it, he’s wearing a full suit and has a few books in his hand. He looks confident; he looks professional.
In 2015, this day was eternalized with a historic marker placed along Franklin’s path to the library.
“A century of institutional segregation was effectively ended that day,” it reads.
But was it?
When the historical marker was being cast, it seems that no one thought to mention that while institutional segregation wasn’t able to prevent Franklin from attending Auburn, institutionalized and weaponized prejudice was able to keep him from graduating.
Most of the biographies about Franklin describe his reasons for not graduating as “obstacles of the era.” It was racism. That was the obstacle.
Before he had even written a thesis, the professors in the history department tried to force Franklin to fit within their ideas of what an African American historian — the first African American historian from Auburn University — should look like.
Initially, Franklin wanted to study and write about the history of what would become the Civil Rights Movement.
Instead, his advisors practically forced him to write about ASC, his historically black alma mater.
“I didn’t want to write that,” Franklin said. “I wanted to write something on the civil rights struggle, and the professors told me it was too controversial. I really didn’t want to, but I had no choice.”
After spending over four years researching and writing a thesis about ASC, Franklin began submitting his work to his advisors.
“Each time I would bring it back for review, they would find something wrong with it,” he said.
This happened multiple times. His advisors continually rejected his work on increasingly flimsy grounds.
“They justified [it by saying] mine had to be perfect,” Franklin said. “The other theses, they weren’t perfect, so why does mine have to be perfect?”
Eventually, Franklin realized that no amount of revision, correction or resubmission would overcome the blatant prejudice he was being forced to confront.
“It kept going on so long, I said, ‘Hell, what you’re telling me is that I won’t get a degree from Auburn,’” he said. “Anyway, I won a scholarship to the University of Denver and got my master’s.”
After he graduated from the University of Denver, Franklin was a professor and administrator for nearly 30 years. He retired from education in 1992 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Auburn in 2001.
“The thesis or dissertation is research; you’ve got to do research,” Franklin said. “An honorary doctorate is just something people agree on.”
Another assistant professor on Franklin’s defense committee, Austin McCoy, said that while someone can argue Franklin earned his honorary doctorate by integrating the University, it would be impossible to argue he didn’t earn a master’s degree.
“Dr. Franklin actually did the research and the work and went through the process to produce a fine master’s thesis,” McCoy said. “The department owed it to him to allow him to defend a thesis that he worked on.”
A continual theme from professors was that this event, while good and necessary, was not intended to erase or “fix” the past.
“It’s up to us today to kind of look back into the past and try to admit the mistakes that our University has made over the years and to try to find some small ways — really small and incomplete ways — to sort [of] make amends for those things,” Hebert said.
In short, it’s a recognition of mistakes.
“Fifty-one years ago, Harold Franklin earned a degree from Auburn University that was basically denied [to] him by racial prejudice and bigotry of the faculty here in the history department at that time,” Hebert said. “So, today, we are hoping to apologize to Harold for that and encourage him to see that our department has hopefully changed for the better.”
McCoy said one way for the department to continue changing for the better is to critically analyze other interactions it had with students of color.
“I think we probably need to do more work in terms of studying the department’s relationship to black students in the 1960s and 1970s and trying to figure out what other sorts of experience black students might have had in the department,” he said.
Similarly, McCoy said that the department could turn a more attentive eye to its current lack of racial diversity.
He is currently the only African American faculty member of Auburn University’s history department.
“That doesn’t seem to be a coincidence in terms of the history,” McCoy said. “This disparity has persisted. So, the question becomes why? What has happened with other black faculty who have worked in this department?”
Franklin’s defense and the acceptance of his thesis also comes at a time when the overall enrollment of African American students at Auburn is at a 15-year low.
In the fall of 2019, there were fewer than 200 incoming black or African American students enrolled at Auburn.
Franklin, who grew up in an underfunded and segregated school system, said that this trend of lessening diversity worries him.
“To me, whether you’re a black, white or green student, you need to keep the enrollment up with everybody you can, with enough variations,” he said. “Because what you’re simply saying is that we are going back to the old days of white.”
Updated at 1:53 p.m. on March 1, 2020.