Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Grandmother

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.