Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Potential

BOND: Now, when you're listening to these speeches, and leading this walkout, and reading these books and growing, in effect -- are you conscious, do you think, that, "I'm going to be somebody someday. I'm going to be different than my peers"? That is, "I'm going to exercise leadership in some way." You're not sure about a profession or career, but, "Somehow or another I'm going to be exercising leadership." Are you conscious of this, do you think?

FRANKLIN: In some small degree, I was. I mean, I'm still an adolescent and growing and not which sure what I'm going to be doing. I played the guitar and so I still fancied myself, you know, a light-weight musician. But it was really again, back at church, at St. Paul Church, one of the things that Bishop Ford did in the Breakfast Club was, he discovered that we would leave Breakfast Club, we'd all sing a song in unison, "Lift Every Voice and Sing", and then we'd go to Sunday School. You know, these are co-educational age-divided classes.

One day there was a complaint from one of the female Sunday School teachers about boys disrupting the class. Two or three boys. And it got to be so disruptive over several weeks, she went and reported this to Bishop Ford. She was just, she was in tears. I'm not sure what these guys had done. Well, this was significant enough for him to leave -- at this point he's in his office -- he leaves the office, comes down and finds me -- I'm seated in a class of young adult men myself, so I'm a student -- and picks me out and says, "Follow me." And this morning, I'll never forget, he went to each of these classes scattered throughout the church and the dining hall and asked these teachers, largely female teachers, "Are there any boys in here who are giving you a problem?" And we'd look there, and, you know, the little girls in the class were chuckling, as everybody sort of identified the boy. And one by one, in some cases, two out of that class. And it was kind of, we went along there, following behind me, me following behind Bishop Ford -- so this is sort of Pied Piper as we went one-by-one to class by class and the line grows longer.

Finally there were about thirteen guys and then Bishop Ford takes us to another part of the church under the choir stand, isolated area, and says, "All right, Brother Franklin, you're now in charge of these young men and you will have your own class, and I don't want to hear any more about problems and disruptions from you guys." So there I was, no curriculum, no experience, and sort of with what they all regarded as the most problematic and at-risk kids in the church. So we started slowly and I'm not quite sure where it occurred to me to allow these guys to tell their stories. So part of it was an introduction ritual. And it went on for so long we couldn't get to all the guys that first hour, hour and fifteen minutes, whatever we had, so the next Sunday we came back and we continued. "All right, you tell us your story. What school do you go to? Neighborhood you live in?"

And one of the things that struck me as we were doing this, these guys had never had that opportunity to even for just sort of five-minute platforms to say, "This is who I am, this is where I'm from," etc. And so later in life I discover the importance of narrative and storytelling for people to feel part of an organization. So we continued and then we expanded that, because each week we'd come back and, you know, we'd read the Biblical passage that the rest of the Sunday School were discussing, and I'd say a few words about it. But then we'd quickly go to their stories, "How has the week been for you?"

These young guys, these guys are twelve, thirteen years old, are sharing stories about being roughed up by police, about being recruited to gangs, about seeing their mothers brutalized by boyfriends. I thought, "Gee whiz, this is way over my head." But I realized it was important to allow these guys to talk through some of this stuff. And what I began to see was these guys who were kind of the "bad boys" in the church and in the neighborhood would listen to each other and were anxious to sort of get in and to have their time. And they were really very candid about some of the things that they were struggling with. They had questions. The kinds of questions boys would have -- "How do babies really get made?" and so it gave me an opportunity, I had to go back and study up on my own biology book, and I'd come back and give them a presentation and we'd talk about, you know, being responsible sexually. It was really quite an extraordinary occasion, and I think it was in that context, as sort of a teacher, young male leader, group leader, that I really began to feel,"This is something I'm supposed to do. I'm pretty good at this."

BOND: Why did the Bishop pick you?

FRANKLIN: I don't know to this day. He -- you know, I know that I was sort of one of his favorites, but one, there were a lot of very talented young men in the church. And it was a surprise to me because I didn't live in that immediate neighborhood. It was kind of a tough neighborhood around our church. And there were guys who lived in the Robert Taylor Projects who were members of our church and guys who really knew the gang culture more first-hand. But I lived, it wasn't suburb, but it was out in the residential part of the city, many miles away. And so I didn't feel adequate, I didn't feel like I had the --

BOND: But he thought you could do it?

FRANKLIN: Yeah, yeah.

BOND: He saw something in you. Or you had shown him something that made him know you could do it.