In April 1987, Harold Melton’s friends lifted him into the air as they celebrated his overwhelming win as Auburn Student Government Association president. Not only had Melton won 3,468 votes out of the 5,338 casted, he had carved out a place in Auburn history by becoming the SGA’s first Black president.
“In [a] picture [in the Glomerata], my friends are holding me up, and to me that represents ... a desire to embrace the school and serve at a higher level, being outdone and them embracing and supporting me more,” he said. “That’s just beautiful to me, and that picture absolutely captures it.”
The joy Melton said he felt that spring night was repeated when he found out the Student Center was being dedicated to him. Once again, he was not only making history, but being embraced by the University.
“I didn’t go to Auburn thinking I would be SGA president,” he said. “I didn’t join SGA thinking I would be president.”
The event, Melton said, was life-changing and a springboard to his current position as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, a position which also wasn’t in his long-term outlook.
Melton grew up in East Point and Marietta, Georgia. In high school, he was an athlete and was active in foreign language classes, leading him to choose Auburn for his undergraduate degree.
“I was an international business major with a minor in Spanish,” Melton said. “I remember my Spanish teacher putting up schools with a really strong foreign language program and Auburn being one of them.”
The Spanish program wasn’t the only thing influencing his decision to come to Auburn. Melton recalled a sense of contagious excitement he felt from its student body.
“I was just captivated,” he said. “I also really like the environment, but you know whenever you talk to anyone at Auburn about Auburn, it’s like a lightbulb goes off.”
Upon arriving at the University, Melton said he didn’t immediately fall in love with it. It had a lot to do with moving into a new environment where he was one out of 18,000 students from diverse backgrounds.
“It took some time,” Melton said. “I really felt so out of place my first quarter — we were on quarter systems then — and my first quarter in particular I felt out of place, not so much my second.”
By his third quarter and the beginning of sophomore year, Melton said he had begun to find a rhythm, a circle of friends and a community.
“It was my campus, and I didn’t have to take a backseat to anyone,” he said. “[I] didn’t have to apologize for being there. I felt like I was a part of the campus environment just as much as anyone.”
The key to getting his legs under him, Melton said, was getting involved in SGA and being aware of who was around him making decisions, what they were like and what factors caused certain results.
“It helped me become in tune with what’s going on around me, and I ended up falling in love with the University,” he said.
The idea to run for president came to him suddenly, and as he began sharing the idea with others they became excited for him. With a lot of passion, work and effort the campaign took off.
“When you serve in that capacity, you just learn a lot, even when you don’t know you’re learning,” Melton said.
During his time as president, SGA dealt with some budgetary issues and was able to close the deal on getting additional fees added to the student bill supporting a new swimming pool for the University’s swimming team. The fees would help create the funding for the then-recently built Student Activities Center.
Through this work, Melton said he learned a lot — things that got him to where he is today and helped him learn how to do his current job effectively.
“You see people who are effective in meetings and people who aren’t and wait for the meetings to end so they can go work,” Melton said. “You see how people effectively resolve conflicts, get through problems, work as a team or don’t work as a team. And you absorb all that without even knowing. That was really a very life-changing experience in terms of building me up and my understanding of what it means to work effectively in the workplace.”
It also gave him exposure for his endeavors after Auburn. After graduating Auburn he enrolled in the University of Georgia to study law. Originally, he wanted to be a prosecutor, and becoming Chief Justice wasn’t something he’d planned at all.
After his second year at Georgia, he got an internship in the attorney general’s office and received a job offer. Around nine years later, he got a call to join Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue’s team as his lawyer and became executive counsel to the governor in 2003. In 2005, he was appointed to the Supreme Court of Georgia by Perdue, and two years ago he was elected chief by his peers.
Now, his day-to-day allows him to use the skills learned as president in a job that was unexpected, but one he loves.
“I come in in the morning and figure out what to read first and prepare for interruptions,” Melton said. “But I love my job, because I get to do things like this and talk about my ideas. I was talking about them before, but no one was listening.”
The ideas he mentions are the same ones that drove him to join SGA when he was an Auburn student — looking at what factors drive certain results or outcomes.
“I have an inside view to the criminal justice system, for example,” Melton said. “I see some of the factors that feed into the crimes, and I’m convinced that yes, there are problems within the criminal justice system that can be fixed. I’m more convinced that they’re problems that are outside the criminal justice system that need to be fixed.”
Melton believes that things that happen, such as children being unable to read or people being convicted for crimes, are symptoms of a bigger, underlying problem. Learning these things was a result of not only his experience in court, but also because of volunteer work with teenagers.
“I was in the neighborhood for 11 years, ... in and out of homes and seeing the lifestyles of decisions being made,” Melton said. “There’s a lot of brokenness out there, and that healing is going to require individuals to get involved in communities, and provide support for kids.”
Regarding the national conversation swirling around race, Melton believes this is the way it needs to be addressed — learning what caused the state of race in America today.
“The underlying problem is a degree of brokenness that we need to confront, and this is not blaming the victim, it’s offering support to those who are struggling to live life to the fullest,” he said.
As the first Black SGA president, and the first person of color to have a building dedicated to him on Auburn’s campus, Melton said he understands the mission that Auburn is trying to pursue, beginning with him.
“The outward representation — just look at the buildings — they don’t show the openness that Auburn is and the opportunity for achievement for all that Auburn is,” Melton said. “I think Auburn just wants to make clear from those who are just looking from the outside in what we really represent.”
Still, despite the dedication, the Harold D. Melton Student Center will coexist with buildings on campus named after some controversial figures. Melton said it is not his priority to change names or talk anybody out of what they perceive they need to be focused on.
“You know, there are some schools here in Georgia named after some really bad Klansman leaders,” he said. “To me, I love the idea that those schools are dedicated to educating and embedded in bettering the lives of all people, even though that would not have been what they wanted. I love the irony of that.”
Melton said with the dedication, he knows what his assignment is and what the University is looking for from him.
“There’s an assignment that says we want you to carry the mantle to be an ambassador and represent what Auburn can mean to all students,” Melton said. “I’m happy to play that role, because every time I try to embrace the University, they always seem to embrace me even more.”
Melton said it’s an assignment he’s happy to take. During his time as an Auburn student, he tried to encourage other Black students in particular to get involved in campus to get the full benefit of what Auburn has to offer. Now, he does the same but takes it one step further.
“I tell students now not just to get involved, but leave a mark,” Melton said. “Let them know you’re here; go into every corner of the University — corners that you never thought you had any business or interest in — and explore. You will leave your mark, and you will have grown in ways beyond which you have never imagined. You will have impacted [the] University in ways they didn’t expect.”
As for the white students that make up the majority of Auburn’s population, Melton said they should also get involved, but in a slightly different way. Melton, who recently found out about the Black At Auburn Instagram page, was disappointed to see the experiences documented and doesn’t believe that this is the overwhelming culture on campus.
“The impression I got that these aren’t the prevailing culture of the University, but rather isolated incidents,” he said. “If it is, that’s even worse. My next question, though, is when do these incidents happen, and what are their other classmates doing?”
Melton recalled one incident, only one, that happened while he was a student.
“We were playing Tennessee and folks beside me a little bit down to my right were screaming out these revised words to ‘Rocky Top’ and they get to the N-word, and the folks I was with, they confronted those individuals,” Melton said. “But that’s what needs to happen. That’s not who Auburn is, and they shouldn’t allow their school to be perceived that way by anybody.”