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Five decades later, Franklin defends dissertation and rightfully earns master's degree in history

Setting the record straight; Franklin allows history department to ultimately do the right thing

Harold Franklin defends his thesis, 50 years later

It wasn’t the call he was expecting. After all, it had been over 50 years since he had fought to even gain admittance to Auburn University.

“It was shocking to me because of the way I was treated,” the 87-year-old told BBC News recently. However, Harold A. Franklin, the first African American to attend Auburn University, graciously agreed to come back and defend his thesis.

The person on the other end of the phone call was Keith Hébert, associate professor and public history program officer. Hébert reached out to Franklin after learning about Franklin’s experience and the denial of his master’s degree. Hébert hoped Franklin would allow the department to set things right.

“I felt a rush of emotions ranging from fear to excitement,” Hébert said about that initial call. “I was excited to reach out to someone whose activism has inspired so many generations of Alabamians. However, I worried that my efforts to make things right might have come too late.”

Fortunately, Franklin proved that it is never too late to for someone to do the right thing. Franklin had graduated with honors from Alabama State College in 1962 and wanted to get a master’s degree in history from Auburn. When he applied, the university denied him admittance, so Franklin worked with civil rights attorney Fred Gray to file a class-action lawsuit against the university. On Nov. 5, 1963, Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson ruled in favor of Franklin. However, that was not the end of the struggle for Franklin. After trying to work with the faculty in the Department of History to approve his thesis, Franklin said it was made clear to him that he was not going to obtain a master’s degree from Auburn. He left and went to the University of Denver, where he was eventually able to receive his master’s degree and earn a living as a history professor at Talladega College. Though he left Auburn in 1965, Franklin has been back to Auburn numerous times for speaking engagements. In 2015, he came to the university for the unveiling of a historic marker in his honor. Franklin also received an honorary doctorate from Auburn in 2001. In February 2020, just ahead of the pandemic, Franklin came to Auburn to defend his thesis and finally receive approval for his master’s degree in history.

“It was clear in our conversations that receiving the degree he had rightfully earned so long ago meant a lot to him, and to his family, friends, and supporters,” Hébert said. “The right to access a quality education, the very liberty that Harold had fought so hard to attain back in 1964, had been one of the bedrock beliefs that guided his life. For him to finally receive an apology for what had happened and to achieve the goals he had originally set brought a great sense of pride in what is possible when we overcome our fears and do what is right.”

Tags: Alumni History

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