When 82,745 fans packed into Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday to watch Auburn University take on historically Black Alabama State University, I was there.
ASU fans were there.
Like me, many of them didn’t care about the actual football game. Because Alabama State is only 54 miles from Auburn, the Black students, alumni and fans of both schools were there to transform the whitest school in America’s most dominant football conference into an oasis of Black Joy. We were there to watch ASU’s Mighty Marching Hornets. We wanted to see the Stingettes shake a tail
featherstinger. As an alumnus of Auburn, I can tell you that the least important thing happening in Auburn’s football stadium that day was college football. In Alabama, spending $515,000 to play a historically Black college is a rare occurrence. Auburn’s 5 percent Black student body was now the majority. The usual tailgates had been replaced with cookouts. The smell of Crown Royal and seasoned chicken was in the air.
The white people were there.
Because this game wasn’t a rivalry or a Southeastern Conference game, the white fans were mostly confined to the student section. And instead of celebrating diversity, unity and the American spirit, Auburn students came together for a spontaneous celebration of one of the South’s oldest gridiron traditions:
These true patriots were not alone. The spontaneously viral chant made an appearance in student sections, tailgates at some of the South’s most prestigious colleges, including Coastal Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee (the second-whitest college in the SEC) and national champions at the University of Alabama.
Although this stunt might seem like a curious choice for the people who refer to themselves as “patriots,” Auburn’s Black alumni can tell you that this is the college’s version of southern hospitality. Any Black student who spent time at the “Loveliest Village on the Plains” has a story that would make this flashmob of unpatriotic profanity pale in comparison. Besides the buildings named after slaveowners, Confederates and the governor who also served as the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, there was a whole period of time when Auburn University football fans whistled and screamed at the school mascot – an actual Black human being. In fact, someone even coined a phrase for the school’s unique brand of disrespectful behavior toward Black people:
George Smith was there.
He was not surprised at all by the chant. As we sat under a tent across from the barbecue grill filled with Que Dawg chicken, he didn’t even talk about the game or the chants until he was asked about them.
“Same old Auburn,” he told The Root.
George Smith would know. In 1975, he was working the grill cooking Que Dawg chicken. While he never got to watch his alma mater host an HBCU, he has memories and pieces of memorabilia from a more historic event during his time on the Plains.
Smith and his frat brothers grew so tired of the university flying the Confederate flag for the first three quarters of every football game that they decided to do something about it. During the 1975 season, forty years before Bree Newsome, Smith and company shimmied up the flagpole and took down the symbol of white supremacy themselves, while Auburn’s white students hurled insults similar to their Joe Biden chant.
“I still have that flag,” Smith said. “But in 50 years, not much more has changed at Auburn. It’s the same thing with the buildings named after slaveowners. They keep saying they’re gonna do something, but they don’t care.
Harold Franklin was there... Kinda.
Franklin came to Auburn in 1964 after winning a lawsuit against Auburn, who refused to admit him because of the color of his skin. Although he won the lawsuit, Auburn had another trick up its sleeve. When he submitted his thesis in history, the graduate committee repeatedly refused to accept it.
“Each time, I would carry my thesis to be proofread, they’d find an excuse,” Franklin told the Washington Post. “Sometimes, I didn’t dot an ‘i.’ One of the professors told me: ‘Yours has to be perfect because you are Black, and people will be reading yours.’ ”
“I told him I had been to the thesis room and read the theses by white kids,” he said. “Theirs were not perfect. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t accept mine.”
So he left.
Auburn finally allowed him to defend the thesis and earn his degree...
During Saturday’s game, as Auburn remembered the victims of 9/11, they posthumously honored Harold A. Franklin, the first Black graduate student at Auburn University. Franklin, who died four days earlier, had been blackballed for more than half a century because his thesis was on the history of his alma mater...
Alabama State University.
“This is just what Auburn does,” explained Dewayne Scott, a 1995 Auburn alumnus who founded the War Eagle Society, an organization of Black Auburn alums that was eventually invited to become part of the Auburn Alumni Association. Like Smith, Scott points out that Auburn loves to champion diversity and inclusion with its words, but rarely does the school actually do anything to make Black students feel like they are part of the so-called “Auburn family.”
“Yelling ‘fuck Joe Biden’ might not be explicitly racial, but who do you think most of the Black people in the stands voted for?” Scott told The Root. “Auburn still has buildings honoring Grand Wizards and slaveowners. Why would they care if people disrespect the president if the whole University disrespects Black students every day?”
Scott also pointed out that the chants were coming from the part of the student section reserved for fraternity members, who were technically in violation of the Auburn student code of conduct.
“The actions of a few should not reflect on the Auburn student body as a whole,” said Jennifer Wood Adams, the executive director of public affairs at Auburn in a statement to The Root. “The sentiments expressed are completely antithetical to Auburn’s values. It is further disappointing that this incident occurred on such a somber anniversary for our nation.
“Freedom of expression and the intellectual engagement of ideas are at the core of the university’s mission. However, Auburn does not and will never condone speech that seeks to disrespect or degrade anyone, including our country’s leaders.”
Asked specifically how the university would address the issue, Adams replied that the university is “engaging with our student leaders to ensure the values of the Auburn Creed remain paramount on our campus.”
Same old Auburn.
So why were Black people even there?
Well, even though the chant was offensive, if Black people stopped visiting racist institutions, the only place in America we could visit is our local church. Also, Auburn doesn’t belong to white people. Aside from the stolen slave labor, my tax money and my tuition built that place.
In 1992, Auburn’s chapter of the Kappa Alpha fraternity held its annual Old South parade, flying Confederate flags while dressed up and Confederate soldiers. But Black students decided to protest. During the protest, Black students stopped the parade by sitting in the street and others joined in. Citing freedom of speech, the University didn’t cancel the parade, leaving it up to the Kappa Alpha Order to do so itself. When the commotion hit the news, an Auburn alumnus traveled down to the school to offer his support.
“So you’re the guy that jeers at whites?” Smith asked, before adding with a laugh:
“Same old Auburn.”
I clearly remember.
“Auburn students are overwhelmingly compassionate and respectful,” said Adams.