Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of Literature

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.