Auburn University integration firsts Harold Franklin, Willie Wyatt Jr., Samuel Pettijohn and Anthony Lee.
Harold Franklin, Anthony Lee, Willie Wyatt Jr. and Samuel Pettijohn joined retired federal judge U.W. Clemon and Alabama civil rights attorney Fred Gray for a panel discussion this week to share their experiences as part of the commemoration of 50 Years of Integration at Auburn University and King Week 2014.
Franklin, who was represented by Gray, was Auburn's first African-American student and enrolled at the university on Jan. 4, 1964. Wyatt and Lee were the first African-American undergraduates to enroll later that same year after integrating Macon County schools, again with the help of Gray, while Pettijohn was the first African-American student to earn a degree from the university in 1967 after transferring from then-Tuskegee Institute. Lee also was the first African-American student to complete all four undergraduate years and graduate from the university in 1968.
The men reflected on a time when they were not welcome at the university, but also shared a message about their hopes for current and future students – that they will take advantage of the opportunities available to them now and remember that people fought to give them those opportunities.
"What I tried to do with the help of people like U.W. and Fred was to make it a better place, to try to raise African-Americans up. You do things because they need to be done, and if you can help somebody, you do it, and then you move on," Franklin said.
K-Rob Thomas presents Anthony Lee with his paver for the Alumni Walk.
"My Auburn experience was different from the standpoint that I was the first undergraduate to apply and be accepted," Wyatt said. "College life was not what it should have been like; it was very confining. I look at things today and say, ‘What happens if football teams were all white again?' Sports would not be the same. I challenge all of the young people here to think about those things. Walking in, registering and going to class was not always like it is now."
Lee said his inspiration came from his parents. "My father was very instrumental in my being a part of the Lee vs. Macon Co. case. My goal after high school was to continue desegregating everything I could because I felt like with the backing of my parents and Attorney Gray I had the fortitude to do things others couldn't," he said.
"I need to give credit to these people on the panel for the lawsuits filed," Pettijohn said. "I had no idea then that was why I had no problems. I simply was here. The reason I wanted to tell this story was because this is the thing we should all think about with colleges and universities – they should be places where students can come and feel free to learn. I think it's an abomination that we would even think of prohibiting people from going to an institution, especially when they have already decided that they want to learn a certain career. They should be free and friendly places where people can go and do their very best."
Gray represented Franklin, Wyatt and Lee in court cases in pursuit of school integration in the 1960s, and continues to practice law in the state of Alabama.
Moderator William Leftwich opens the panel discussion featuring Anthony Lee, Willie Wyatt Jr., U.W. Clemon, Fred Gray, Harold Franklin and Samuel Pettijohn.
Clemon, the state's first African-American federal judge, called Gray "the most important civil rights lawyer in the history of this state."
"For over 60 years he has been in the forefront of leadership of the Civil Rights Movement from a lawyer's point of view, and I stand in awe of him," Clemon said.
The forum was moderated by William Leftwich, principal with LS Strategic Group. The company addresses human resources issues pertaining to equal opportunity programs, race, diversity strategies and training.
Following the forum, the Auburn Alumni Association hosted a luncheon featuring author, educator and poet Frank X. Walker in honor of Franklin, Lee, Wyatt and Pettijohn and presented the men with pavers for the Alumni Walk located at the Alumni Center.
"I was very pleased with the turnout after working with the commemoration planning committee to create a memorable tribute to an important milestone in the history of Auburn University," said Paulette Dilworth, assistant vice president for Access and Community Initiatives in the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and co-chair of the commemoration planning committee. "The reaction to the opening events has been wonderful and has exceeded our expectations. As we move forward, throughout the year, I hope more students will take time to participate in commemoration events and visit the new exhibit at the Student Center."
— By Carol Nelson, Office of Communications & Marketing
Last Updated: Jan. 24, 2014