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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
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BOND: Dr. Franklin, welcome to these Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you for being with us.
FRANKLIN: Thank you.
BOND: We've asked others what recollections and memories they have about the Brown decision, 1954, but you were born in 1954 so I guess you don't have any immediate recollection. Do you recall at all any discussion in your family as you grow older about this decision, what it might mean, what it could mean?
FRANKLIN: I recall both my parents were part of that great migration of so many African Americans who departed the South, in my case, from Mississippi, to Chicago and Detroit. My family remained in Chicago. And after -- you know, there were quite a number of significant decisions in the civil rights movement that followed the Brown decision. So by the time I was able to understand a bit of the adult conversation around the table in the early '60's, Brown was a reference point a few years back, I understood that. But that it was very decisive, turning point for making America a better nation. This -- the rhetoric that I heard was suggesting that there is a momentum now, of change in this nation that will be good for -- for African Americans and Brown was sort of referenced as sort of one of those turning points. The Montgomery bus boycott as another, although many of the Northern -- at least in Chicago -- African Americans who talked about Dr. King and the Montgomery bus boycott also had some ambivalence about that style of change -- civil disobedience, that is. But to have the Supreme Court of the United States weigh in on the side of African Americans was a tremendous sort of bolt of encouragement.
BOND: Would you describe your family's outlook, your neighborhood's outlook, generally speaking, in this period, in the early 1960s, as optimistic? Things are getting better, things are going to improve?
FRANKLIN: Yes, I'd say it certainly was. Often sort of pegged to local developments in the city of Chicago, and so here again in the mid '60s and late '60s, there was a lot of unrest and a lot of sort of pushing against the old boundaries. And in Chicago's own way, you know, black and white politicians sort of sat down in smoke-filled rooms and made deals and tried to mediate some measure of change. It's interesting that my pastor was one of the sort of black power brokers that dealt with the Daley machine. And so we often had, through his interpretations on Sunday morning, a sense that things were getting better, that there was an upbeat mood, that anything was possible. It registered in the Motown music we listened to, certainly in the church music, the triumphal hymns, the sense that we are marching to Zion, we are on a journey, God is with us. Angels keep watch over us by night. So there was, I'd say, despite occasional moments of great tragedy and sadness, tremendous hope and readiness to face the future.
BOND: Your mention of your pastor and of your parents gives an opportunity to segue into another section of questioning. Everybody has people in life who influence them. Who are some of the people -- talk about your parents first. What did they do for you -- not just food, clothing, shelter -- what did they do for you?
FRANKLIN: I'd begin with my father who worked for over thirty-eight years at the Campbell Soup Company in Chicago, on the West Side of Chicago, some distance from our home in the neighborhood on the very far South Side of Chicago. Everyone knows about the kind of segregation, hyper-segregation in Chicago. And there was a kind of daily courage and audacity on his part, I thought, as he walked through largely white neighborhoods to get to the bus in Chicago that would transport him to work. Very early in the morning, you know, four a.m., Dad was up. And there was a kind of work ethic that he modeled. He worked hard and he'd come home and, you know, read the Wall Street Journal. He was a working-class guy, but he was paying attention to the stock market and so he really broadened our sense of participation in the larger society. You know, Dad went to college, junior college in Chicago at night, and I still remember -- I cringe today when I think about the streets of Chicago. There were three of us young boys at that point, three sons. He'd sort of leave us in the car while he went in for his hour-long class in business organization, and come back. Of course, everybody did that then. It was safe. So anyhow, his pursuit of education at night, working hard during the day.
And I mean, I think I contrast that with so many urban poor families today that never see anyone sort of get up and go to work in the morning. And we had that example. He didn't talk much about race relations in Chicago or in America. He'd often reflect on his own experience in the family of being sharecroppers in the South, and sort of being disenfranchised and cheated, and why they made the move to Chicago. He was also, although he attended church, not very active in church, and often didn't attend because he was either exhausted from work or went in on Sundays for some special project.
My mother, on the other hand, really was the sort of mediator in terms of racism in Chicago and America and would talk about it, would warn -- you know, there were four boys before the two girls came in my family. And it's interesting now, I reflect on the way in which she and my grandmother sort of socialized us to be survivors on the mean streets of Chicago, both in terms of neighborhoods we shouldn't enter and interracial settings in which there's a certain etiquette and behavior we should display. Not to call attention to ourselves. To be polite and well-mannered in dealing with police officers and so on. This is all very practical wisdom about how to sort of negotiate touchy situations. And then, of course, during this period, the experience of Emmett Till was very much in the air. We attended the church on the South Side of Chicago that -- it actually wasn't the very same congregation, they were sort of brother-sister congregations almost, just a few blocks away. And our pastor and the pastor of Emmett Till's church were colleagues and best friends. And so that tragedy sort of struck home and prompted us as young men to listen very carefully when Mom and Grandma talked about you know, kind of how you present yourself in public and what to do and what not to do, etc. But they were sort of pillars of the local church in a church that didn't ordain women. These were women without title, but with significant portfolio, and they ran all sorts of youth programs and they organized recreational activities. They encouraged mentoring and after-school tutorials and so on. So they kept us very busy and tried, in some ways I think, to insulate us from the racism in Chicago and in the larger nation.
BOND: In addition to living with your immediate family, you're living with a large extended family --
FRANKLIN: It's true.
BOND: -- almost under the same roof. Who in that larger family had an impact on you?
FRANKLIN: We lived -- we owned two houses. My grandmother and her sister, when they moved from Mississippi, bought two houses next door to each other and then there was a small plot of land where my grandmother kept a garden. So you know, it's almost hard to imagine there in the urban jungle of Chicago there were these two houses and a garden there. And there must have been, gosh, between the uncles and my grandmother's children, seven or eight adults, my mother being the youngest in that family system. And then, of course, my mother and father. We lived in my grandmother's household for a long period as they saved money in order to kind of move up and out. So it really felt like a compound in which there were a lot of people looking out for us and meals were huge evening affairs, usually all together but often, because people were working and coming and going, you know, a few people sitting. And with neighbors joining us because we had a front porch and we'd often eat out there.
But your question, who influenced, it really was my maternal grandmother, Martha McCann. And the thing that was remarkable about her was her ability to, she was sort of -- as Du Bois might talk about it -- had bicultural competence. She really knew the language and the ways of the kind of secular streets of Chicago as well as the world of the church. And the very kind of staid and proper existence of the church world. She was an office holder in the local congregation, head of the mothers' board popular in many black churches. And so she was a kind of charismatic leader. People gravitated to her. Some of her own sons, who lived in our house were, you know, these were tough guys and they had friends. They liked to drink on weekends and so, often, in our household on that front porch, you'd have these women from the church meeting with Mother McCann in their starched white suits, uniforms and nurses' caps, along with the local winos of -- you know, from the neighborhood, all on that porch together enjoying fried chicken, collard greens and sweet potato pie. And it struck me, "Gosh, our home is more inclusive than the church is," because the church wouldn't have been a comfortable place for these young men to show up, certainly not inebriated. And it just struck me that she was this bridge figure, bringing people together who ordinarily wouldn't sit at a common table.
BOND: And is she, by this example, teaching you a kind of tolerance that you might otherwise not have had?
FRANKLIN: Absolutely. I thought there's a tremendous potential in this kind of -- this style of communicating and making oneself available. It's a style of leadership that has a high threshold of tolerance for difference and different practices and inclinations. My favorite story, I'll say very briefly, was one day -- you know, this was during the time of gang fights in Chicago -- two warring gangs, the Gangster Disciples and the Blackstone Rangers, were about to go to blows on the corner near our house. And my grandmother being perched on the porch sort of looking out on the neighborhood saw this, heard the argument escalating, five or six of these guys from each side. And she ran off that porch right into the middle of these guys who were nose-to-nose almost, and diffused that conflict and spoke -- talked those boys down.
And one of the interesting things she did, was she knew some of these boys by name. She had given food from her garden to their mothers, and it just struck me that Grandma had moral authority because she had watched these guys when they were cute, smart little boys going to kindergarten. She had disciplined them, she had fed them. She probably employed them over the years. So she now had the moral authority to speak truth to that kind of power. And they backed away, they walked away -- certain to fight another day -- but that day, Grandma, it was her moment to say, "No, not here, not now." She urged them, she made appeals like, "What would your -- think of how your mother would feel if she were to receive a call that you were fatally wounded in this kind of fight." So I saw her kind of appeal to something good in these young men. And it just strikes me today, with world conflicts, that America as a superpower -- we may be superior at the level of military power but if we don't have moral authority, we can't convene parties and really talk them down from their inclination to fight. So Grandma had a message for these international leaders, I think.
BOND: It's a shame she's not around today.
BOND: Outside of your immediate family, what figures influence you? You mentioned your pastor a moment ago.
FRANKLIN: Bishop Louis Henry Ford, also from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and migrated to Chicago. He established his own congregation, the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. And he was really quite an extraordinary person for a tradition like most Baptists and black Pentecostal churches in that time. It was a kind of anti-intellectualism and a sort of detachment from the world and kind of insular attitude toward church life. It was to be a refuge from the larger world. He said, "No, we have to be more than that. We have to be moral agents. We have to be change agents." And so he was very involved in politics. He was -- he encouraged young people in the congregation to go to college, and he provided -- he raised money to provide scholarship money and support for young folks pursuing education.
He was very involved in the Daley Machine and in local politics. I think he felt he could get more from the system working with it, knowing the first names and knowing how to negotiate. And he had a style of confrontation that was more, I'd say, sort of in the context of a working relationship. And so I recall he didn't particularly care for the sort of confrontation of the civil disobedience philosophy that Dr. King brought to Chicago in the -- later in the '60s. I recall his discussing his difference with that approach. But he certainly made me feel that it was important to understand the language of the larger polis, the larger city and the language of business, the language of politics, the language of -- employed in higher education. And not simply to know one's own idiom in the African-American community and more specifically, in the black church. He pushed us to be open, to cross barriers, and one of my favorite memories here is that he played golf, and this, too, was regarded, this is kind of sinful behavior. Black pastors didn't play golf and -- but he was out on the golf course and he brought us along, these young guys in the church. Occasionally the girls of the church, but -- and while on the course, caddying for him, he'd introduce us to the local city council person or to -- we met Joe Lewis, the boxer; Sam Cooke, people like that. And he again, I think, was trying to expose us to a larger world and saying, "You can participate. You have the confidence to do that." So it was an interesting way in which he was sort of building our own self-esteem, promoting us, getting us out there.
BOND: And he had a breakfast club.
FRANKLIN: Ah, yes, yes. The Breakfast Club. Fascinating. Morning -- Sunday morning before kind of Sunday School and the actual worship service. Sunday mornings at eight a.m. we'd gather. And this thing grew over time to two, three hundred kids. It was phenomenal. And he'd serve us a small breakfast. This was my first introduction to something called tea cakes, that he said he wanted us not simply to eat the doughnuts and danish that they could buy, but these hand-made Mississippi tea cakes from the mothers in the church who were baking these things, and lovingly providing them for the kids. So we'd have, you know, a little breakfast. But then, he went right into his agenda for the Breakfast Club. There were oratorical contests. There were scripture memorization contests -- who could remember the most scripture. There were scripture, sort of expository speaking contests, and utter a scripture and then explain its meaning. And all this was going on. There were debates throughout the year. There were black history quizzes and reports. And it was really quite remarkable to see the kind of talent and genius that was there that would, again, otherwise it would have been unknown certainly to the church and probably to the public school teachers that these kids attended and sat under, had not someone had the genius to create a forum in which young people could express themselves and listen and learn.
He also brought city leaders and business leaders to the Breakfast Club and they were just always in awe that at eight in the morning, here, just in the shadow of the nation's largest housing project -- the Robert Taylor Projects in Chicago -- here were a couple hundred kids engaged in the excitement of learning and debate and oratory.
BOND: Do you think you were aware that you were engaged in learning or was this just a good experience for you? Do you think you knew that this was influencing you?
FRANKLIN: Later I did because this went on for many years and I moved from simply being a nine-, ten-year-old kid who is just having fun and just a good experience -- you'd see the girls there, and it was fun to be there -- to, as a teenager, beginning to have more responsibilities and providing leadership for the young men that were present in the Breakfast Club. And so I began to realize, this really was quite remarkable and that I was being shaped in some important ways and having an opportunity to actually quiz the mayor of the city. I mean, Richard Daley came to the Breakfast Club as did the other black elected officials and prominent preachers from around the nation. So, I knew nothing about Morehouse College at that point, where I'd attend later, but in a sense, we were being exposed to some of the change agents and the thought leaders of the day in this setting. And, of course, Bishop Ford, he was always -- he's a consummate kind of public relations artist --and so he had photographers present and so this was good for the politicians to be -- you know, two hundred black kids sitting there -- and it's good for him. He rapidly ascended within our denomination and later became the presiding bishop of one of the fastest growing black churches in America. And certainly good for the kids because we just -- we just were exposed to wonderful things.
BOND: Now are you thinking in this period, in high school, that I want to be like Bishop [Louis Henry] Ford, I want to be a minister? Is that on your horizon?
FRANKLIN: Toward the end of my high school years, I think that that began to loom as a possibility. I was, I think, early on like so many kids, you know -- sort of sports and music occupy one's attention. And only later do I realize that this is an important form of community service. I still wasn't attracted to the idea of ministry, however. I just, something about that that kind of repelled me and I thought it was a bit presumptuous to sort of stand and tell other people how they should live their lives. So I wasn't attracted to that dimension but some form of public leadership community service was clearly attractive. And Bishop Ford represented a style, an option for me.
BOND: You said leadership. What did leadership then, if you can recall high school, what did it mean? How did you exhibit, if at all, leadership where you were president of a club or -- ?
FRANKLIN: Well, you know, bear in mind in this period there were, as the Bible says, there were giants in the land. I mean, there's Martin Luther King, Jr., there's Malcolm X. The Nation of Islam is there in Chicago and so Malcolm X is coming and going and Elijah Muhammed, people like that. So there were a lot sort of larger than life figures on the scene in my life there in Chicago at the time. And so as a high school student I recall beginning to listen to the speeches of some of these leaders. And certainly by the time I was a junior in high school, this was a daily lunch time activity where a group of students at Morgan Park High School would sit and we'd have our lunch and someone would pop a tape into a cassette player and we'd listen to, you know, Eldridge Cleaver or Malcolm X or someone give a speech. And I recall wanting to imitate that, wanting to be a provocative speaker, wanting to mobilize people to inspire through both rhetoric and through service, and I recall that wedding those was very important in my own understanding of leadership.
So there was a student council at Morgan Park and I did run for Student Council and part of it, I think -- I won the election part because I made a pretty -- what the students regarded was a compelling speech, but I also tried to sort of back up the speech with pointing out instances in which we had actually done some things to help improve the school. I mean, pick up garbage during the break and urge people not to litter our campus. Little things like that. Because I was annoyed with leaders who only made good speeches but never sort of stuck around to do any dirty work. And Bishop Ford always taught us, because he wasn't himself a particularly eloquent speaker, I think he always felt a bit of inferiority next to some of the more eloquent, the silver-tongue orators of the black pulpit -- King included, and Joseph Jackson in Chicago. Ford wasn't that kind of speaker. He was just kind of a home-grown, practical exhorter. He'd exhort people. But he said, "Look at their deeds. What have they built?" And it was almost this Booker T. Washington style. You have to have skills of the hand as well as the head. And he always, one thing that just comes back to me now, he says, whenever he walks into a new sanctuary or into a sanctuary -- he was a guest speaker often -- he said "The first thing you do is go and visit the restroom. Not to use it but to simply survey it." And he said it told him a lot about the leader, the pastor of that church, by looking at how he allowed the restroom for men and women to be presented. And he said if there was paper on the floor and it was unkempt, he knew that this leader was just more about words than about service. So I don't know, that just registered with me, to be suspicious of people who were eloquent but who had never built and never served people.
BOND: Do you think then of yourself as a leader [when] you're in high school? Are you saying, I'm a leader? You're not Martin Luther King, but are you saying that?
FRANKLIN: Yes, yes. At that point particularly. I mean, I recall in '69 as a junior in high school, as a point at which I began to think of myself as someone who might actually be out in front and trying to model and trying to inspire people to move in a certain direction by going there first. And I actually got in some trouble during that time. This was a period when the Black Panthers were quite active in Chicago and a young leader, Fred Hampton, on the West Side of Chicago was murdered. And as we understood it, the police intervened in an inappropriate way and there was a gun, you know, shootout. So there was a lot of anger, I recall the next day at school, and it was this sort of diffused -- and people were sort of wondering, "What should we do? How do we respond to this?" And I recall there were a couple of students who began to suggest that we take destructive action, break windows in the school and make a statement. I intervened and I didn't think about it at the time, but perhaps my grandmother had -- was haunting me in that moment, and I said, "Isn't there a better way to make a statement? What if we simply walk out of school and demand that there be an assembly to talk about what has happened here and how it has affected us." And people bought my idea and so I began to think, "Gee, I could actually have an influence in which I may have prevented some more violent, destructive activity," because people really were ready to move, ready to do something and just weren't sure what to do. And these two guys, they happened to be brothers, and fancied themselves as sort of young Black Panthers in our school.
Well, I wasn't that, but I often hung out with these guys. And so it was the courage -- I commend myself here, I shouldn't do that -- but the inclination to intervene and to speak up at a moment when a decision was being made and to suggest what I thought was a better alternative. So yes, now we did walk out and I was identified along with these two brothers and we were expelled, and so it was for me a time of learning a little about the cost of leadership, the risks of leadership, of speaking out, of standing up, of being willing to be sort of identified and easily picked out.
And these -- you know, my colleagues were not doing very well in school and so they were actually expelled and transferred to other institutions. Well, I -- you know, my grades were decent and so the principal struggled with what do we do with this young man, and eventually they put me on probation. And I became even more adamant about listening to the speeches, about learning how leadership was unfolding and when I began then to learn a little about SNCC, and even about the leadership role you played and others during the civil rights movement, really imprinted me and was, I think, paving the way for my next journey as I entered Morehouse College.
BOND: What was your high school like? What was Morgan Park like? What was the racial composition there?
FRANKLIN: Morgan Park, I would reckon -- it was 75 percent white and about 25 percent black. So there was --
BOND: So when you get elected to a student leadership position, you're getting the votes primarily of white students.
FRANKLIN: That's correct, yes. And again, I think it was an effort, because my elementary school was, I guess, 90 percent white and we walked some distance from our neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago to get to that Esmond Elementary School. So, we were kind of -- we had white friends and we knew they were approachable, and they could be friends and they were okay. And it was quite striking to me because most of the kids in our neighborhood attended another school, the Shoop Elementary School which was, I'd say, all black. So most of our friends in high school were from the all-black elementary school.
BOND: How were you able to get out of your attendance zone, I'm guessing, to go to these other schools?
FRANKLIN: You know, I've often wondered, and I think that it was a matter of Shoop having reached capacity and the need to sort of move some other students out to another school zone. I think it was just overcrowded, and we lived far enough away that Shoop took students that were closer. And then the question of what to do with those outliers, we then were transferred to another institution.
BOND: And I'm guessing in high school, at least, that the teachers were overwhelmingly white.
FRANKLIN: Correct, yeah. It was a big deal to have an African American teacher. I can remember there may have been five or six in the entire institution. And so -- you know, it was -- and this is another part of the story in terms of claiming my own leadership voice. There were a couple of the white teachers in Morgan Park High School who sort of saw potential, and named it for me, and said, "You really ought to read these books," and tried to expose me to other leaders who were claiming leadership in important ways. So you know, despite the tension that was always present in some way, because of things going on in the larger society would sort of spill into the city and we had certainly had -- I mean, there were white guys in the gang at the school who, you know, would threaten us, and terrorize through words mostly. There were rare that there were actually fisticuff conflicts, although that did happen from time to time. But we knew there were guys you just didn't go near and you didn't talk to. You know, they'd use the "N" word in our presence. And we didn't pick the fight and it didn't happen.
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.
BOND: Well, then you go off to Atlanta to Morehouse College and what's that like -- this shift from this integrated high school in a segregated city, Chicago, but still a Northern city, to Atlanta, Georgia? What's that like for you?
FRANKLIN: It was really jarring to first encounter the South, you know, as a young adult. As children often, like many kids in Chicago, we'd spend a few weeks, you know, in the South visiting family on the farm. That was great fun to be able to go and actually see a farm and, you know, touch animals and so on. This is just a foreign world to us in the city. But here, encountering Atlanta and Georgia for the first time, hearing white people use language like, "colored people in our neighborhood" or "that work for us," it was just -- I didn't know quite how to respond to that. I just felt, this is going to be very, very different and very challenging. We -- but Morehouse was both wonderful and in some ways disappointing, I mean --
BOND: Talk about each one.
FRANKLIN: Yeah. It was wonderful to be in the presence of all these young men who I thought are also kind of leaders and preparing to serve the community and preparing to join the freedom struggle. And you know, just to sit in an auditorium where there're six hundred other articulate, smart young men was incredibly empowering. I just felt this sense of promise and potential. And to have faculty who really were quite extraordinary in both the sacrifices they made by remaining at Morehouse, teaching us when they, at that point, began to have other options in white universities. But they were there for us and modeling for us.
On the other hand, Morehouse, I found, was less committed to the cutting edge of the freedom struggle than I had expected it to be. I found that many of the teachers were also seeking to sort of socialize and assimilate us. It was a very -- kind of what one might call bourgeois ethic that was being instilled and, I don't know, in some ways often felt kind of irrelevant to all this activity going on around us. I mean, every month we would lose guys from our class who were being drafted, and they were off to Vietnam. And so you had the war and you had the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination and we just felt we ought to be doing more. We ought to be out there helping to organize communities, etc. And -- I don't know, in some ways the college felt like it wasn't pushing, it wasn't pushing us. We were having to lead the school.
BOND: Now are you still having internal debates about what you want to do, what your career path is going to [be], how that's going to work out?
FRANKLIN: In some measure, although at that point I was fairly clear that I wanted to dabble in politics, and to move toward at least being eligible for elective office. And here again, there were young, attractive leaders who were role models for me. There was Julian Bond and there were many others who I thought, "Gee, I like what they're doing," and they were kind of working within the system, but trying to bring transformation. And I thought, "I think that's more my style," because there was always the Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton option.
FRANKLIN: And I'd often flirt with that. And it didn't kind of feel right in my bones. And so -- so yes, it was a drift toward kind of politics, running for office, that kind of thing. So at Morehouse I did run for -- my first office was being elected the student representative to the board of trustees and with an opportunity to sort of sit in the chambers of power of the --
BOND: Yes, that's got to be a little heady.
FRANKLIN: Certainly was. Very intimidating. It was very different from a student council, that kind of setting. I mean, these were prominent business people and the president of the college sitting there. And I, you know, learned a lot about restraint and how best to give -- each meeting I was asked to give a report. There were two students, upper-class and an underclass, so I was the underclass person and I would sort of give my sense of the major issues and the concerns that students had. And so again, it was just another refining forum for me.
BOND: Well, when did you say, "I'm going to go into the clergy," or "I'm going to achieve a higher education beyond Morehouse, I'm going to make religious affairs my life"? When did this happen? I imagine it wasn't a bolt of lightning.
FRANKLIN: No, it was a gradual -- I like to talk about this in terms of a tug, a quiet and gentle persistent tug away from my real passion and love, political science, political philosophy and legal studies. And so, you know -- I'm a sophomore, I'm elected to the Board of Trustees and -- you know, again, this sense of disappointment with the kind of insular culture of Morehouse, made me feel there's a larger world out there --maybe this is Bishop Ford haunting me still -- that I wasn't connecting with. And I recall visiting Emory University's campus for a debate term and -- I was also on the debate team -- and so this oratory piece continued to evolve. And just being impressed with this, you know, this grand university. I thought, "Gee, this is something I'd like to experience as well." I mean, I loved the Morehouse experience but it's a family, it's a network, a village. And yet, it's not the kind of university in the way that these other places are.
So, I applied for a junior year abroad scholarship and received that, and went to England. So there I was transplanted from Morehouse and Atlanta and Chicago to Northern England in which the entire county of Durham was populated by 30,000 people. And so it was almost rural with a small town and this grand old, eight hundred-year-old university there. And that too was extraordinary. It felt more like Morgan Park in some ways because there I was very much a, you know, in terms of racial minority, even tinier numbers there in this British university setting. But an opportunity during vacations, to -- both to interpret and tell, you know, British citizens and students what was going on -- about what was going on back in America. They had enormous curiosity. Watched television. They'd see the anti-war movement and civil rights and black power movement. "Tell us about this." "What does this mean?" And, "Can you interpret Jim Hendrix's lyrics for us?" So it was sort of a strange and rewarding experience of being a kind of interpreter, almost an ambassador I guess is the best way to put it.
BOND: But what did this have to do, to you, not what you did for them? How did this affect you being in this foreign land, people speak your same language, or nearly the same language, but this is a very different place. What did this do to you?
FRANKLIN: It certainly deepened my awareness of my own kind of inner world. I mean, I felt very isolated for much of that time and didn't have a -- you know, I had to create a community. I began to reflect more on my own mission and purpose and direction in life. I don't think I would have done that at Morehouse. I was so part of the activism and the movement and activities, and here now, almost it was a kind of monastic experience, this opportunity to slow down, to retreat from what the great theologian, Howard Thurman, referred to as "the traffic" -- "the busy traffic of life."
And in that context, I mean, I'm now able to think about this in terms of I was able to communicate with God in a way, really able to hear a new voice that I hadn't really connected with or paid much attention to before. And it was there in England during that year that I began to experience this strong tug away from politics and law toward religion and theology. And I was still, perhaps by virtue of being outside the United States, keenly aware of cultural differences and curious about them, and curious about religious difference. And so my -- I talk about it as a "call to ministry." We're fond of doing that in black church culture. But it sort of happened in the context of encountering other cultures and religious traditions as well.
During the Christmas break from the English school year, I traveled to Spain and Morocco, and -- you know, Catholic Spain and Muslim North Africa. And boy, I came back, I was just haunted and fueled with curiosity about how a belief system shapes an entire society and culture. And certainly when I walk in the streets of Casablanca and Rabat in Morocco, I mean, business owners would stop what they were doing and face Mecca, I later learned, and pray, just kind of in the middle of day and I thought this is very strange and very disconcerting. And I thought, "I need to understand what is it that motivates people to behave in this way, to organize their business lives around this sort of faith commitment?" So you know, back to school in England and then the next, at the end of the school year, there was a little money left in the scholarship and I'll always be grateful to the English Speaking Union for this scholarship and Morehouse's Merrill Scholars. I received both those. I went to the Soviet Union and there encountered young people who were in the Communist Party and who -- just very hostile toward religion and religious faith. And -- but as I listened to kind of what their faith was invested in, it was a sense of this collective humanistic possibility, if we put our best foot forward together. If we share, if we don't insist upon individual, so that was very -- my equilibrium was disturbed by the Soviet Union. Atheistic Communism. So I returned to Morehouse my senior year. Now I'm a real mess now because, I'm thinking about religious studies, I don't want to be a preacher. That's not intellectually respectable.
FRANKLIN: I've got to still have to do something that I can feel I'm using my head. And there were a couple role models, the very, kind of -- the professors of religion at Morehouse who were very helpful at that point. My political science department chair didn't understand what I was up to. They sort of began to abandon me and thought that I was having some sort of, I don't know, mental crisis because I was, you know, the A student in political science and now I was not interested. Or I'd come to classes with a more -- with a somewhat belligerent agenda in pressing politics and law to answer larger questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence, the nature and destiny of human persons. And you know, they didn't have much patience with that kind of questioning.
And so at that point I realized I couldn't go to law school and in the middle of my senior year, at a time when you're sending applications out early in the fall of the senior year, there I was, unaware of religious studies, seminary. It was completely foreign to me. And I happened to find a catalog in a wastebasket in Morehouse College's reading room that had the familiar colors, maroon and white, of Harvard and of Morehouse. And I just sort of fished it out and this was a catalog from Harvard Divinity School. Never heard of the place. I was intent on going to Harvard Law School. And I flipped through it, took it home and there was a card, response card, I filled out, sent in, received an application, applied, was accepted. And this was incredible because, you know, I just, I wasn't quite sure what I was doing.
But this felt like a kind of faith -- leap of faith, as the theologian Kierkegaard talks about that. So there I was off to Harvard Divinity School but with a keen interest -- it's funny, I actually applied to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard for the Ph.D. program as well as the Divinity School for ministry studies. I was accepted in both programs and in both applications I talked about my travels to North Africa, to Soviet Union, and this interest in comparative belief systems in interfaith and religious and non-religious perspectives on life. They were very interested in that and so they wanted me to come and pursue those studies. But they were surprised that I said no to this very lucrative offer for the Ph.D. program and then the Divinity School, that I wanted to pursue this ministry side, so at some level, I think I was already leaning toward a vocation that would involve service and communicating with the masses and not simply a kind of scholarly, literary, classroom-based existence.
BOND: We've taken you up through college years and you've described this really rich mix of experiences, of travel overseas, education overseas, the black college experience at Morehouse. Prior to that, the integrated high school, some leadership positions. Great family influences, the influence of Bishop Ford. All of this taken together I'm guessing has made you who you are.
Is it at all possible to replicate this for larger numbers of people? I mean, you can't pick people's families for them. You can't pick their high school for them. But is it possible in some way to replicate your experiences or the kinds of experiences you've had for larger -- a larger group of people?
FRANKLIN: I think it is possible to replicate dimensions of it and I think I would thematize this in terms of crossing boundaries. I think that, you know, local religious communities and organizations, secular community serving organizations, youth groups of various kinds, as well as educational, public schools and private schools ought to be more intentional about finding ways to bring students together from across geographic, ethnic, racial, cultural boundaries. So that they can dialogue and perhaps work together. I mean, Habitat for Humanity provides some opportunities of that sort as well. But in addition to our sort of domestic encounter with others that can be -- I mean, forums can certainly be organized to facilitate that -- I think some international experience, particularly in the post 9/11 era where the rest of the world sort of regards Americans as very parochial and detached and sort of, "We don't care about the rest of the world. We don't know much about the rest of the globe and we can kind of carry on with a certain level of global naiveté because everybody wants to be an American anyway, and we've got it all." And I think we'd better work hard now to try to disabuse the rest of the world of that notion. And I would hope that certainly for kind of especially that ripe period of the high school years, I especially think that the rising senior, that is, those who have reached the junior year and are about to -- that summer, a lot of organizations try to create opportunities for students to travel. I just think it's very important for us to get outside and look back at ourselves.
BOND: But how do you overcome the tendency, the desire of many people, both within black America and within America period, to want to be with themselves, with people like them? I'm thinking about AMEs want to be with the AMEs, the Baptists want to be with the Baptists, and all. How do you get people to broaden their own horizons when they have this real tendency not to do so?
FRANKLIN: I think it's exceedingly difficult, and it's important to hold up for them the exemplars, the role models of people who have done that, who've walked kind of this often lonely ground into new places. And who have survived and who are the better for it. I think, you know, people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others who benefited from international travel, from learning in unusual contexts and kind of leaving home, as it were. That we just really try to promote that is important. And I think to find resources in the religious tradition itself as well as in our cultural and literary traditions that talk about, you know, really being a world citizen. Being at home in a larger world. We are not alone. And you know, I think even, you know, I read Jesus' way, of thinking about his own self-understanding of moving beyond his own immediate community to encounter gentiles as a part of the mission, a part of his way of living a more fulfilled life, is this encounter with the other. And I think that that is a kind of paradigm that many of us in today's -- certainly in the church world but in the larger culture -- simply abandon. There's this almost a" dread of diversity" as I've heard one scholar name this. And I think if we can create safe harbors, if we can promote the successful examples, it makes a tremendous positive difference when you risk crossing the boundary. It's certainly I've experienced that in my life, and I try to encourage and promote that with other people.
BOND: Still, it's very, very difficult to do because people are afraid of the different, of the new, of the other. Strikes me as a tremendous challenge to help them overcome that.
FRANKLIN: Yes, yes.
BOND: Let me ask you a philosophical question. What do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy, and style. And how does any interaction between these three work for you? Vision, philosophy, style. How are they different? How do they work together, if at all?
FRANKLIN: Sounds like a graduate school oral exam question. I think vision is a map of possibility. It's mapping possibility. And having a picture of a life and existence, a world that doesn't currently exist but that could -- is achievable -- and that's what makes vision so exciting, I think, because although it is a form of almost utopian reality, if you will, it sort of speaks back to my contemporary situation. So vision -- a picture of where we might go. Philosophy, I think, is for me, is the rational grappling with important questions that give meaning to life and sort of -- that package of reasons and justifications for proceeding, for living as I do. And so a kind of philosophy of life gives me the sort of rational fallback for a particular existence. Style is, I think, the way you do the things you do, is a manner of framing one's philosophy and vision, just to move to your point about the interaction. It's a particular kind of almost art with which one construes one's own life and being in the world. And so, you know, style is that sort of, I think, kind of the surface packaging that makes it distinctive. And -- but it has to have substance, so we're certainly all familiar with people who have only style, a manner of carriage and presentation but there's no substance. That philosophy and the vision for me are the substance --
BOND: Are the substance.
FRANKLIN: -- and, yeah.
BOND: And do you think we -- you particularly, but we generally -- we're always unconsciously integrating these as we go along with our lives or we're putting it together almost on a moment-by-moment basis? We're integrating style, vision, philosophy, bringing it all, bringing it all together?
FRANKLIN: Yes. Absolutely, absolutely.
BOND: What vision has guided your life?
FRANKLIN: Well, I'd say that the vision for an inclusive, just community is the kind of city, neighborhood, world I'd like to live in and with my limited time on the planet, I'd like to devote that time to creating that world that is safe for all people, no matter what their color or religious commitments, or whether they have any religious commitments or not. It's a sense of creating safe public space for -- even for non-conformists. And so that's a part of the vision of -- the big vision, the social vision.
In terms of personal vision and a vision I'd hope for every other individual is the possibility of living a truly self-actualized existence in which all of my potential are fully explored and exploited and so that I don't reach the end of my life looking back with a sense of regret about what I should have tried. And I think that, for me, gives me a kind of energy and restlessness and a kind of audacity to risk making a fool of myself as I, you know, go back and try to learn piano because I didn't as an eight-year-old, or as I undertake -- I'm currently involved in a kind of world travel and trying to visit countries and look in on cultures that have always been intriguing to me that I haven't yet encountered. That's a part of what I'd like to sort of wrap up as a part of my brief life. I want to see the whole world and hear their music and taste their foods. So that's kind of the vision.
BOND: Has the vision changed over time? Is it different in any way now than it would have been five, ten, more years ago?
FRANKLIN: Let's say it has evolved to become a bit more expansive and inclusive. The more I discover new peoples and places, new ways of thinking about the divine or what the theologian, Paul Tillich, refers to as "the ultimate concern," it only deepens my curiosity to study more, you know, the ways of exploring truth in those traditions as well, as an intellectual. And I guess to some extent as my own kind of spirit internal, personal spiritual journey unfolds, I am enriched by other ways of praying, of meditating, of seeing the world and at the same time, the commitment to community, to service, to sort of doing things that don't necessarily advance my own personal agenda or well-being but enable other people to experience something of the self-actualization I'm talking about. That's important, and for me that's sort of the justice agenda. And I think that has been -- that's been fairly constant.
BOND: You decided, obviously, that you were going to pursue a kind of life in which you persuaded others to your views, your philosophy, through the written word, through argumentation and so on. Why'd you choose that path? I mean, I understand the decision to go to Harvard, but why that path instead of the one you'd previously thought about, law? I mean, lawyers have an enormous effect on people. You win a successful lawsuit, a major suit -- people behave in different ways. You write a book -- people may or may not read it. They may not pay attention to the argument. Why this life of the mind, I guess, rather than the other kind of life?
FRANKLIN: Yeah, and you mentioned writing a book and no one reading it. My writings are the kinds of writings that once you put them down you can't pick them up again, so I'm keenly aware of how anti-literate so much of the American public is. Reader's Digest said that two years ago, over 60 percent of American households didn't purchase a single book over the course of an entire year. So that certainly has prompted me to be more savvy about how I sort of get the message out, if you will, and the importance of paying more attention to media. I admire and learn a lot from people, people like you, who understand that radio and television and mass communication is a very important mode of sort of presenting questions as well as presenting arguments.
BOND: But all this means you think that ideas count?
BOND: How did you come to believe that?
FRANKLIN: In high school, during the crisis of the walkout in 1969 and this period in which I was actually not attending school for several days -- not permitted and at home -- my mother was there. I -- and then recalling again one of the teachers at the school who sort of gave me a reading list. I began to read. They actually permitted me to take books from the library at school because they liked me and so I had -- I'll never forget the two things that I took home were Plato's Republic and Robert's Rules of Order for some reason. This is not, you know, bedtime reading. But I guess, again, there was this sense of "How do you govern? How you run meetings and convene people and maintain a sense of order as you try to sort of get practical business done -- " fascinated me with Roberts' Rules. I thought, "Someone's actually thought about the rules." And so again, even through that little book, my passion for the law was, was deepened.
And with Plato's Republic, everybody talked about it -- it's the most important philosophical text that had ever been written-- and yet, he, Socrates, is a story teller. He's something of a preacher. And I was intrigued by that, he's an educator, but he educates by asking hard questions. He didn't give lectures. He will give substantive responses as he reflects on a student's response. And I was really intrigued with that Socratic Method. And it was there, I think, that my sense that ideas do matter, ideas have power and began to sort of see that validated over time. So that when I would, later, back to listening to the speeches of Malcolm and King and the Panthers, sometimes they'd occasionally reference Plato or something. I thought, "Gee whiz, that's extraordinary." And I thought, "Plato's been gone a long time and yet the power of his ideas -- " I don't know much about his personal life, that wasn't so important. So it wasn't biography as much as the ideas and the questions. What is the nature of the good life? And what is the nature of the good society? Those are the two philosophical questions that Plato and some would argue all of the history of philosophy are grappling with those two sets of questions. I thought, "Gee, at some level, if you kind of peel away all the layers and get under the surface, that's the agenda all of us somehow are working on," was trying to figure out, what does it mean for me to live a good life, and what does it mean to create, have a good community, a good society?
BOND: It just strikes me that's extraordinary to begin to think in high school, although others do, that ideas count that much.
BOND: Think about your own path to leadership. We generally think about it in a couple of different ways, three ways. Great people cause great events; movements make leaders; or the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Where do you fit?
FRANKLIN: I'm very attracted to this third model. I mean, I don't think of myself certainly as a great leader or a great person. But -- and it's hard to predict when the next movement will roll through and sort of sweep up. But I do have a sense that there are leaders and people with creativity and talent and a will to serve and to do good always out there, always on the scene. And there are occasions where questions and issues emerge that mobilize our concern, that have the potential for evolving into a movement. Just to give an example, I think that I have a sense that there's a movement trying to be born now in the wake of the tragedies of September 11 that hadn't quite yet taken off, but could, and I hope, will. And it has to do with, both within America and beyond, this sense of the fragility of the human existence, the sense that nothing is promised, there are no guarantees it will be here tomorrow or next week. And if we sort of plug into that awareness, it might fuel a will to serve, to connect with strangers, to learn more. Americans learning about Islam and Ramadan today who had no idea, no clue about this religious tradition a year ago. But we all know more now.
That kind of new learning, new discussion that I sense the rebirth of civil society in America, of individuals leaving suburban enclaves and trying to find, figure out what they can do to improve the life of the city. It's revisiting the language of Thomas Jefferson and others about the common good, the public good, and how we somehow fit with that. Again, that's Plato's notion of the good community. And so it's just a long, rambling way of trying to suggest that I hope to be in place if the trumpet sounds and there is this unleashing of energy and volunteerism to improve neighborhoods, to really deal with the problems of homelessness and of ignorance and public health crises. I mean, these same challenges that have faced human society over time, I just have confidence if we were to mobilize our best resources and if humans, all of us on the planet, were compelled to act in certain ways, we could make a huge, huge difference and move us closer to the good society.
BOND: You talked recently about how the church generally, black church particularly, is kind of a legitimizing myth. At the same time, this institution -- 70,000 in the country right now, individual congregations -- but a long, long tradition among denominations providing leadership -- why has this institution particularly been so important to African America? Why this institution?
FRANKLIN: Why, I think it's rooted in the experience of slavery and the fact that the early black churches that emerged in this country in the eighteenth century were the only institutions where African Americans could gather with a sense of -- a measure of self-determination. You know, "We define the rules here. It's our rules of order that govern this organization." And a sense of relative safety, a sense of connectedness to other individuals who are not family. And so the church as a kind of surrogate family, extended family, emerge within the black church venue. And so for me it's unremarkable that the church became the most important and central socializing institution in our community. They couldn't do everything and so there was a need for the NAACP and the Urban League and other civil rights groups to advance issues of freedom and justice in the larger society. And yet, the church is very much a part of those movements as well. But it also understood it had another agenda and that was the agenda of people-making, of fostering family, of healing wounds, both physical and psychic wounds that people encountered as they grappled every day in a racist society. And that was hard work. That's important work. And every week the people gather with the expectation, at least in a black church, that some measure of re-knitting the unraveling fabric of family, neighborhood, of civil society will happen.
Not that we will be affirmed as detached individuals, aspiring and moving up the economic ladder, according to the logic of capitalism, but that we are reminded that we are community. That's the best of the black church as a servant and a facilitator of civil society. And when I use that term I simply mean connecting strangers, and promoting a sense of citizenship that prompts people to act in ways that advance a common good, whether it serves their own economic or personal interests at all.
BOND: By definition this conversation that we're having is about black leadership, not about leadership generally. To what degree does race consciousness affect both your work and who you are? Who you were, and who you are today? What does race consciousness have to do with you?
FRANKLIN: Yes. Certainly ever present, given the nature of this country and milieu in which we live. I think here of W.[E.]B. Du Bois' classic trope, From the Souls of Black Folk, "one ever feels his twoness." You know, an American and African. And it is the sense of holding these many elements together is my own now more mature sense of a personal self-consciousness that I'm a member of a particular ethnic group. I have loyalties there. That's from whence I come. I have debts to pay to those who have given and suffered and sacrificed. But I am also, again to use Dr. King's language, "a world citizen, a part of the world house." And I have loyalties there as well. And my -- I think the art is never subsuming necessarily one to the other, but somehow living with a sense that I can serve and advance and enhance both as I move forward.
BOND: What do you say to people who say, "By emphasizing this race, you're only dividing us? You're drawing lines between us. You're separating us. Why do you keep bringing up this race question, why don't you put it behind you? Get over it."
FRANKLIN: I just think that it simply would be counter-factual and counterintuitive to ignore the ever-present reality. Again, Du Bois, "the presence of the color line" now in the twenty-first century. We can't pretend that that's not a problem, not a challenge. And smart, mature, confident people take on the hard questions and issues. They don't ignore race or gender or sexual orientation. They take them on. They address them. They find ways to reconcile. They find ways to respect difference, to tolerate difference. Again, in the course of trying to facilitate everyone experiencing the fullest of their own human potentials, because theologically speaking, I regard the presence of potential in every human soul as a profound and sacred thing, as a gift from God. And my obligation then -- not option, obligation -- is to work to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to explore and to develop them.
And hence, part of what I saw you all doing as you took on Bull Conner and the segregationists, mean-spirited police in Birmingham and other places, was, you know, both certainly to advance the cause of freedom and eliminate racism but at a more profound level philosophically, theologically, was to enable that gentleman who was really stifling his own capacity for experiencing all of the goodness of life, to set him free to do that. Now that's a very ambitious and very difficult enterprise but back to the question of vision, that's the vision that I think propels me as I go forward. And so race is, reckoning with race is an obligation. We have to deal with that.
BOND: Does race affect you in your presentation? You're speaking to an all-black crowd here, an integrated crowd, an all-white crowd here. How does race figure into these three?
FRANKLIN: Well, one of the things I've learned especially from feminist scholars and critical theorists is you know, you never escape your skin. You know, mind, idea, spirit, soul are all sort of empackaged and I have to reckon with my own social location and social identity. I am a black male heterosexual Christian and on and on, and other people have other packages, and the radical love ethic of Jesus for me means loving and affirming all the other packages, all the other people. And so I sort of carry that sense of consciousness into whichever audience I might happen to address.
I am able to call upon a very familiar symbol set when I'm in an African-American audience as I persuade -- I like your way, that verb -- as I persuade and exhort and challenge people to, to actualize themselves. But part of that agenda, even in black church audiences, is challenging people not to be too parochial -- not to hide, not to take refuge in a way that ignores and negates other peoples and other cultures. So in that setting, I'm sort of affirming the strengths of black churches, families, individuals, affirming the souls of black folk, but also saying, "There's a larger world out there, folks, don't forget. Go out there and experience it. Go and visit and see the museums of Rome and Paris. Go and taste the fruits of Tahiti," and the challenging them not to think "I'm an American, I'm a black American, this is my home, this is where I belong, and that's the end of the game." No, absolutely not. That's not what Dr. King -- that's not the legacy he leaves us.
As he says, and I'll use a fancy term, "our challenge is to de-parochialize ourselves" and part of what I try to do in my seminary is to deparochialize these young black seminarians, so that on one hand, they are skilled leaders of black congregations; that's important. "I want you to know how to preach and administer and counsel. But at the same time, I want you to be a -- to cross boundaries. And the kids in your congregation may never do that unless they see you do it first. So pastor, you have to take the risk. You have to go to the meetings in the other neighborhoods. You have to be present in city hall and the state legislature to represent the interests of your children." And as they watch you move from your safe, comfortable space where you could spend all your life doing good, important work, but as they see this as an important agenda of yours to move out into the public square, I think they will think, "We have permission to do that, too. We have the confidence to operate in that larger context on the world stage as well."
BOND: Is it possible that -- I know it's possible you can place too great an emphasis on race but here's a quote from William Allen. He says, "Thinking in terms of race or gender is a danger. Until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we're going to continue to harm this country." I asked you a moment ago about division, and [you] gave the perfect answer, but is there a danger in being too black, too often, too much?
FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think that that is the danger, is that it, in fact, strangles the possibility for the full fruition of one's own identity. I think when people reify or make sacred their particularity, for me, getting back to my theological toolbox, that's sin. That's an offense to God. That is wrong. And, you know, this is not popular to say to friends who are black nationalists, who want a separate community and separate nation, and yet I can attend a black nationalist meeting -- I go to the Nation of Islam meetings on occasion, listen in on what's going on -- and affirm the good that's at work in that project. This sort of effort to redeem people who are lost and confused and unaware of the African identity, yes, there's something -- there's an important moment there. There's an important season for affirming one's particularity. I'm black and I'm proud, and yes -- because there are others who would argue there's never a moment or season for that kind of self-celebration-- I vigorously disagree. I think part of the beauty of America is the possibility for all the cultures and peoples to sort of have their moment, to have their season, to express distinctiveness, and I hope thereby to enrich the larger body politic. So yes, it is a danger and for me, it's more than simply regrettable from a social or psychological perspective. Theologically it's a bad place to be.
BOND: Does race place a burden on you that it doesn't place on, say, the president of the Candler School of Theology? Does he or she not face a burden that you do or a responsibility that you do? How does race guide you in that sense?
FRANKLIN: Well, there certainly is a sense --
BOND: Or obligate you, how does it obligate you?
FRANKLIN: Yeah, well, there I think this sense of connectedness with those who continue to struggle. Those who are deprived in significant ways of opportunity in participating in the larger American experiment where I feel that I've been blessed to have certain opportunities and see the possibilities, the vision, the larger vision that lies beyond. Part of my obligation is to ensure that I can maximize the number of -- especially children, who might not otherwise have that experience, to ensure that they do. And so there's a kind of obligation to include, to sort of pull up and elevate and expose in a way that I don't sense that my colleagues, white colleagues in majority institutions, necessarily go about with a day-by-day sense that that's their agenda.
I mean, in a way I often feel a bit of envy because they're able to focus on their agenda, fundraising and building an institution, and whereas I sort of get called on by the local YMCA to go talk to a group of at-risk teenagers. Well, that's really not in my job description. But I've got to do that. And I mean, while I'm doing that I'm not at the Rotary Club or I'm at having a power lunch with someone downtown. And there are a host of other kind of responsibilities of that sort, that because I do understand the importance of race and connectedness and kinship and village, nurture -- there's things I have to do because I am now, whether I like it or not, I am a leader, a kind of a person who carries a certain mantle in that community.
BOND: Do you think there's a crisis in black leadership today? I can remember hearing almost every so often there is such a crisis. Is there a crisis in black leadership?
FRANKLIN: You know, it depends on how one frames this because I think that there are all sorts of --
BOND: Let me tell you how Cornel West says it. He says, "The crisis is a symptom of black distance from vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by ethical ideals and from a credible sense of political struggle. That black leadership," he says, "is alienated from that, separated from this past."
FRANKLIN: Yeah. Yeah. I'd argue that that is slightly overstated, so yes, there is a crisis, and it is most evident among leaders -- some who are particularly visible -- and who, I think, have been distracted from the agenda of lifting as we climb, and who have become, I think, too assimilated into the systems of power to speak truth to power which is the function of the prophet. The prophet is she or he who speaks truth to power. The expectation of the black masses is always that our black leaders will speak truth to power, will carry this prophetic mantle. And I do perceive certainly among the masses a sense of disappointment, a sense of betrayed expectation that religious, elected officials, business leaders in the African-American community, should carry that mantle in a persistent way and do not -- often seem to be silenced, or distracted, or sort of preoccupied with the stuff in their lives and the material gains, etc.
So yes, there is a crisis, but it's remediable. I think that those leaders, and this is why I think that we're in a time, turn of the century, where the historian, Vincent Harding, says this is a time when black leaders should be caucusing in summits, the heads of organizations should gather to strategize and think together about complementarity of purpose and mission and activity. I see that happening and -- you know, Tavis Smiley convenes summit meetings and thoughtful people. I think that's a good and exciting enterprise, and for me, I think, is mitigating the strength and force of the crisis that Mr. West diagnoses.
BOND: In the future -- and of course none of us knows what that's going to be -- what kind of leadership is going to be demanded that perhaps we don't have now? Are there going to be new demands on leadership figures and leadership figures, you're talking about an enormous range of people. What are the new demands going to be?
FRANKLIN: Well, I can't ignore the fact that one-third -- roughly one-third, according to researchers at Howard University -- of the African-American community continues to live in a sort of sinking, multi-generational poverty, poorly educated. Just significant personal crisis, substance addictions. On and on, kind of violence in neighborhoods. Somehow, before we can really celebrate these African Americans sort of joining the American dream, we've still got to reckon with that challenge to us, because they're our family. They're our village. And I think, you know, Dr. West is keenly sensitive to those two-thirds of African Americans who are doing well, who are making it, and who forget about the one-third.
But most leaders haven't forgotten. Most of us are connected in various ways. Most of us are serving on a day-by-day, week-by-week fashion to somehow create opportunities for less advantaged citizens. And so I think the new leadership perhaps is going to have to be even more visible in modeling the sense of connectedness to the have nots. To demonstrable programs that enable people to move from dependence, from welfare, substance addictions, etc., from dependence to self-sufficiency. And leadership that is wise about that process, about the transitioning from dependence to self-sufficiency is going to be important. So it's not just leaders who sketch the big vision which we've had a lot of, or leaders who just serve particular constituencies. But leaders who are somehow helping to kind of really transform existence for a large number of people, who are just desperately looking for hope.
BOND: What can we do to make sure we have all kinds of leaders, the big picture people, the specific constituency people, the people with the vision for moving from dependence? How can we guarantee, if we can, that we have a ready supply of efficient, hard-working, dependable leadership figures emerging in our community?
FRANKLIN: Well, I think there's certainly a role for educational institutions to play in trying to encourage students to claim their leadership, claim their mission in life in terms of providing direction and inspiration and hope and practical examples for self-actualizing their lives. And so I think we need more people to understand that as they do so, they are -- that's a form of leadership. Not all leaders are the big picture behind the microphone and in the public eye. But there are grassroots leaders, there are bureaucratic leaders who work in organizations to provide guidance and direction, who speak truth to power, who reinterpret the mission of the corporation or the company to ensure that it's serving the common good. I think that's the kind of leadership I hope we will nurture in a variety of ways, in the arts and journalism, in business, in medicine and in the sciences and certainly in politics and religion. People who understand the dynamics of the human spirit and its quest for meaning and purpose. And people who understand the fragility of community and how we need to knit and work on community building.
So it's wisdom about the human soul and about the human community building and then the larger agenda of crossing boundaries and negotiating difference and otherness. And I think if we have leaders that have wisdom about those three agendas -- the soul, the community and difference -- we're going to be well-served.
BOND: On that note, thank you, Dr. Franklin, for being with us. This has been great.
FRANKLIN: Thanks very much. Thanks for the opportunity.
BOND: Thank you.