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Unconventional Leaders (Part 3)

Over the past two days Cornell University’s Nick Salvatore has written about two leaders Amos Webber and Nannie Helen Burroughs—two leaders who deftly fought for equality. In Salvaotre’s final installment he writes about Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin.

Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, the preacher extraordinaire, began his life in 1915 in the deeply segregated Mississippi Delta. Raised by his mother, Rachel, and step-father, Henry Franklin, C. L. began attending St. Peter’s Rock Baptist in the Delta town of Cleveland, in Bolivar County, as a baby carried by his mother. But a few years later, still a child, found him working long hours in the cotton fields owned by the white planter on whose land the family lived and toiled. Both experiences would prove formative.

The novelist Richard Wright posed the central problem of black Americans growing to maturity in that hostile climate. Born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1908, he asked years later, as a successful novelist living in the North, of his youthful self: “But where had I gotten this notion of doing something in the future?” C.L. asked similar questions, and recalled later in life an experience he had as an 11 year old boy working those cotton fields around Cleveland:

We had a field that ran right up to the railroad tracks. Just across that railroad track was the 61 highway. And it was meaningful to me…to see the trains coming from Memphis enroute to New Orleans and Jackson. The people would be waving  out of the windows at us in the field. And the cars going down the highway with  different license plates….This  was quite an interesting thing to me to see that….It             gave me a deep longing to someday see these places where the cars came from, where the trains came from, and where the people on the trains came from.

Across his life, the church provided C. L. with the central context through which he explored that “deep longing” –what his friend, Reverend Benjamin Hooks, of Memphis, would later call “an intimate kind of commotion”—that fueled his work and his inner search for meaning. In 1929, age 14, C.L. accepted Christ and received baptism in the Sunflower River.  Two years later a powerful dream/vision—and, it must be said, a hatred of farming—led him to accept a call to the pulpit, and he became a circuit preacher, traveling to four churches each month as no one congregation could offer a full salary. His education was limited, and he was, in his own words, a theological fundamentalist during these years: The Bible was the literal word of God and the only issue a pastor should address concerned individual salvation. In 1939, however, that “intimate kind of commotion” led Franklin to his first fulltime pulpit at New Salem Baptist in Memphis, then to Buffalo, and finally, in 1946, Detroit. In less than seven years, Franklin’s understanding of faith and politics, to say nothing of urban life, underwent a sea change.

Twenty-four when he arrived in Memphis, C. L.’s raw skills as a preacher and singer were nonetheless considerable and, before long, his Sunday morning sermon drew standing room only crowds. Hungry for education, he took classes at the city’s historically black Le Moyne College, where he first read Richard Wright. Even more important to his growth was the tutoring and fellowship offered weekly by a group of senior pastors to young preachers like Franklin. They criticized drafts of sermons, discussed points of theology, analyzed biblical selections, talked of politics and the race, and helped the young men learn how to administer a church. In this group, C.L. began to question the fundamentalist strictures he had brought from Mississippi, and found support for the troubling feelings, he recalled, that accompanied his embrace of “Biblical thinking beyond what I’d been exposed to in Mississippi.”  Out of this came a different message from the pulpit and in the weekly radio program, “The Shadow of the Cross,” C.L began in 1942. Religious themes and hymns were important, but C. L. also explored over the air the meaning of those themes for daily social life in a segregated city and country. and he invited  local black leaders, NAACP organizers, and national Baptist officials to join him in these discussions. In 1943 C. L. took the pulpit at Friendship Baptist in Buffalo, a large congregation with a significant trade union presence among the members. These men and women broadened further C.L.’s social vision, and contributed to his sharper integration of God’s word with life as experienced daily. These lessons too he in turn spread to a broader audience over the radio program he began shortly after arriving in Buffalo. In both cities, C. L. led his congregation and increasingly those beyond the church walls. But his leadership was deeply informed by what he learned from others.

Yet, almost as soon as he arrived in Buffalo, it seemed to many in the congregation, he left—to take a position at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit in 1946 where, until he was incapacitated in 1979, he became a masterful teacher, colleague, and leader in his congregation and well beyond.

C. L.’s most influential method of teaching and leading was, of course, the sermon. He could take four verses of a Psalm, for example, as he did in his masterful sermon, “Without A Song” with the 137th Psalm, and develop the complex meaning in its plaintiff cry of the Israelites into a potent lesson of faith and politics for the present. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” the Israelites asked as the refused to sing. For New Bethel and for black America, however, the burden of his message was that we had to sing for, some things “you can’t say you can sing, isn’t that so?” And he told the story of Mary, a slave on an 18th century plantation in Georgia who, converted during a revival by a white Baptist minister, went to take her place on the mourners’ bench—only to be turned away. As she walked back down the aisle, tears streaming down her face, Mary mumbled: “I’m going to tell God one of these days how you treat me.” Her fellow slaves, watching through the open windows, at that moment raised the hymn that carried, even centuries later, one of the deepest exressions of hope in African American culture: “Oh Mary, don’t weep, don’t mourn;/Pharaoh’s army got drownded;/Mary, don’t weep, and then don’t mourn.”

It is important to note that the sermons of this masterful preacher who “whooped,” or chanted, the final third or so of his sermons while remaining on message, reached audiences far beyond New Bethel’s capacity of 2500. In Detroit, the 10:00 P.M. Sunday sermon was broadcast live, and from 1953 on, his sermons were recorded live by a local recording studio and sold regionally throughout the Midwest. In 1956, Chess records, the great Chicago blues label, took over for a national audience and some 75 of C. L.’s sermons would be distributed, and many became best sellers in the black community. As a result WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee, a radio station with a national reach, began airing a sermon every Sunday night at 10:00 to an enormous audience. Not surprisingly, C.L. quickly became the star attraction on the gospel circuit across the nation.

Franklin’s leadership in the community emerged in other ways as well. Much like what Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. would do in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, C. L. established a Political Action Committee at New Bethel to encourage discussion of issues and to get out the vote during elections. In addition, he brought in such guest preachers as Reverends King, Adam Clayton Powell and, to give talks, various politicians, both local and national. What was most important about Franklin’s approach to leadership in his community was that he did not require that others necessarily agree with him. In 1954, for example, he gave the church over to two local Communists, James and Grace Lee Boggs, to discuss the struggle in Kenya against British colonialism and its meaning for African Americans. C. L. was openly anti-Communist, but thought the Boggs’ had ideas and information valuable for black Detroit. This pattern would be repeated throughout the 1960s, as Franklin, the committed if skeptical integrationist, worked with and disagreed with black nationalist advocates such as Reverend Albert Cleage, the brothers Richard and Milton Henry, and such groups as the Black Arts Movement and the Republic of New Africa. It was not that he was self-effacing, a man without ego—definitely not! Rather, Franklin understood that, for all his considerable talents, he held no monopoly on wisdom and that the problems confronting the African American community were complex. Given that, he would offer support, if not necessarily an endorsement, to any group whom he thought had the best interests of his people at heart. As a result, his prominence as a preacher was less of a barrier than it might have been for other well-known people, for Franklin never forgot where he came from, the people who had passed him along, and the lessons he had learned.

Amos Webber (LINK), Nannie Helen Burroughs, (LINK) C. L. Franklin—three very different personalities, three approaches to leadership, three distinct eras in which they operated. Yet they shared two core characteristics. They were willing to take risks, to raise issues they thought important, in an effort to raise awareness and broaden engagement. But at their best, none of them forgot that they were in and of their communities, and that their very leadership depended on the lessons they learned from others. Each in their own way understood that effective leadership emerged not from isolated individuals but from the shared experience and involvement of many in the proverbial village where they, and now we, reside.

Nick Salvatore is the Maurice and Hinda Neufeld Founders Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations. You can learn more about Salvatore here. (link)



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