Auburn University's core student union building is now known as the Harold D. Melton Student Center. After a resounding "War Eagle" from the namesake himself, Chief Justice Harold Melton of the Supreme Court of Georgia, a banner was lowered signaling the dedication. Behind the banner was signage with the new name installed on the front facade of the building.
"I feel like somebody who's attending his own funeral," Melton quipped to an audience of family, friends, elected officials, student leaders and members of the University administration as he took the lectern. "It is a privilege to hear so many great things said about me, many of which I don't feel like I begin to deserve."
Melton was preceded by Auburn SGA President Ada Ruth Huntley, who showed admiration for Melton as a student leader during his time at Auburn. During his time at the University, he served as the first Black SGA president in University history as well as the first independent of any Greek life organization from 1987-1988. Huntley is the first Black female SGA president.
"I cannot think of any building more fitting to carry the name of Chief Justice Harold D. Melton," Huntley said. "He worked to improve student life at Auburn, and his perspective was impactful in ensuring he would not be the last African-American SGA president here. He was a part of paving the way for many student leaders to come, including myself."
Melton achieved 65% of the vote in a landslide victory during the 1987 SGA election, according to Huntley, who deviated from her script in saying she received "nowhere near close to 6%, so kudos to you, [Chief Justice Melton]." After graduating from Auburn with a major in international business and a minor in Spanish, Melton went on to the University of Georgia School of Law. He was later appointed to the Supreme Court of Georgia in 2005 and appointed to his current position in 2018.
"All of that fed into the easy decision to name the Student Center after the chief justice," said Bobby Woodard, senior vice president for Student Affairs, who opened the dedication ceremony.
Melton was near tears as he expressed gratitude for the University and Auburn student body's recognition of his life, thanking the Auburn Board of Trustees, University President Jay Gogue, Van Henley of the Auburn Alumni Association, its Black Alumni Council and SGA.
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"Special thanks really goes to [SGA] itself," Melton said. "This was a student-led initiative both for this year's leadership team and the previous leadership team."
The idea behind dedicating the building to Melton originated with the leadership of Mary Margaret Turton, who served as the 2019-2020 SGA president.
Melton said once he had initially applied to Auburn in 1984, he wasn't sure what would be in store for him at the University and wasn't even confident he had chosen the right institution. Part of his uncertainty came from an encounter he had with a mother whose children he was tutoring, he said.
"There was one lady in my apartments who asked me, yelling across the parking lot, if I had made a decision about what school I would attend; I said, 'Yes, I decided to go to Auburn,'" Melton recalled. "She was really, really excited about it, and the next day $20 shows up with a note. I went to her house and she says, 'So when do you start Harvard?'"
Melton said the woman went pale as he corrected her and said he was attending Auburn, telling him to keep the money. Despite the memory, Melton said he never believed he would serve under the positions he has at Auburn and in Georgia.
A phone call asking permission for the dedication came on Aug. 24, Melton remembered. It was from Elizabeth Huntley, a member of the Board of Trustees and co-chair of a trustee task force to pursue reevaluation of buildings and structures and campus and their namesakes.
"She suggested this idea that they're thinking of naming something after me," Melton said. "You have these moments in life where you're not sure you can hear everything correctly, [and] that was one of those moments."
Melton's first thought was that "some back corner of a closet" might be named after him, but he was astonished to find out it would be the main student building on campus.
"The secret is I would have been very happy with the back corner of a closet," Melton joked to the audience, who responded back with chuckles. "There were a couple of thoughts that ran through my head. One of the thoughts was just the meaning of what this is with a name, your name, [on a building]."
For Melton, the dedication reminded him of James Foy, the University's dean of student affairs from 1950-1978 and the namesake of James E. Foy Hall, the main student union building prior to the construction of the Student Center in 2008. Although Foy retired, he continued to visit campus and interact with students, one of whom was Melton during his years at Auburn.
"Seeing Dean Foy walk through there — it was more than his name on a building, he took that as a role and a sign," Melton said. "He would go through just to say 'Hi' to everybody. I remember him coming up [to me] and saying, 'Hi, how are you doing? Do you have everything you need?' as if he had some power to fix everything. He cared enough to play that role, and that's how he saw his duties."
The dedication also reminded Melton of Harold Franklin, the first Black student at the University, who was accepted in 1964 amid the civil rights movement.
"What [Franklin] had to do here was basically endure," he said. "He had to suffer, and ultimately this University is doing what it takes to make sure he got what he's earned. I'm proud of what the University is doing in that regard."
However, Melton said his experience at Auburn was incomparable to that of Franklin's. He said he wasn't "knocking doors down and busting through windows" unlike Franklin, who broke barriers of racial discrimination.
"Mine was a path that existed with friendship and camaraderie and fun, and we celebrated our way to the finish line," Melton said. "When I decided to run for SGA president I remember there were some detractors. You'd be proud to know those detractors had nothing to do with Auburn University, they were other schools."
Melton said those at odds with his presidential campaign tried to convince him his friends would give up on him, but their sentiments were to no avail. Once he won, he said his friends as well as the University were with him, and neither group was embarrassed but instead pushed him forward.
"When I was campaigning, my slogan was 'Auburn on my mind,'" Melton said. "It was a play on the fact that I was from Georgia ..., and I ran with the idea of wanting to serve Auburn in a way that I hoped I would be able to and that I maybe had something to offer."
With his energetic spirit embracing, Melton said he found that the University embraced him even more, a feeling he expressed in an October interview with The Plainsman.
Ada Ruth said she appreciated Melton as well as other Black alumni, faculty and staff throughout Auburn's history for setting precedents that saw her become the 2020-2021 SGA president.
"You walked so that I could run, and I'm incredibly grateful for your contributions to our University," Huntley said to Melton, who was seated beside the lectern. "Due to Chief Justice Melton's impact on Auburn while he was a student, the long-lasting impact on the student body for decades past his graduation and his contributions to cater to the community around him, the student body is thrilled that we are naming the Student Center [after Melton]."
Ada Ruth said she feels the dedication will be influential to Auburn student leaders today and in the future who are inspired by Melton and seek positive change on Auburn's campus.
Ada Ruth's speech followed that of her mother's, Elizabeth, who said she wanted to make sure she did "what the students set out to do" as one of the driving forces within the University administration for the dedication. She called out the fact that a white female SGA president spearheaded the idea, while the first Black female SGA president saw it come to fruition.
"We often talk about Black history in this country when I think we need to change our tune and call it gray history," Elizabeth said. "When we look back on all of the advancements that have occurred in our society that have advanced diversity, that have advanced humanitarian efforts, it's always been that side of America that's the good side, that believes in all of us, that looks at the character of a man and determines that character is what should be celebrated."
Elizabeth said the dedication was a historic moment as the first building on Auburn's campus to be named after a Black figure. She also had positive remarks that Melton would be the namesake.
"It is truly fitting that Auburn's hub of student activity be named for Chief Justice Melton, and the naming will forever serve to remind all Auburn students — past, current and future — with perseverance, adversity and hard work, anything is possible," Elizabeth said.
She also acknowledged that the University recently appointed Regina Sanders as president of the Auburn Alumni Association, making her the first Black president to hold the office.
"We continue to make such great strides in our family in celebrating people for their character and not the color of their skin," Elizabeth said. "I want to thank Chief [Justice] Melton for continuing to cultivate the next generation of leaders and for setting a foundation that not only allows our children to not only bring, but to achieve."
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