Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Early Development

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.

BOND: Right.

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.