Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Foundational Experiences

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.