Franklin, C. L.
C. L. Franklin
Minister, civil rights activist
C. L. Franklin was a Detroit minister and civil rights leader who helmed one of the city's largest Baptist congregations in the 1950s and 1960s, but he is better known as the father of rhythm-and-blues singer Aretha Franklin. Her career began on the national gospel-music tours he headlined when she was still in her teens, and for many years her charismatic preacher-father was as famous as his Grammy-winning daughter thanks to his activism. "One of the leading figures in the Northern branch of the civil rights movement, Franklin helped set the tone of protest in the Motor City and beyond," wrote Angela D. Dillard in the New York Times Book Review.
C. L. Franklin was born Clarence LaVaughn Walker on January 22, 1915, in Sunflower County, Mississippi. His mother, Rachel Pittman, was the daughter of slaves, and his father, Willie Walker, was drafted into the U.S. Army when the United States entered World War I in April of 1917. "My earliest memory was of my father when he came back from the service," Franklin recalled years later, according to Nick Salvatore's 2005 biography, Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America. "That's about as far back as I can go in memory. I recall him coming back in his uniform and playing with us, teaching us how to salute, and things of that sort that had to do with the military."
Moved to Memphis
Clarence's father likely left the Mississippi Delta region because of the overwhelming lack of opportunity there for black men, a situation compounded by the threat of lynching, which was commonplace in the region at the time. Left with Clarence and his younger sister to support, Rachel eventually married Henry Franklin, a sharecropper, who adopted Clarence and changed his last name to Franklin. C. L. Franklin once recalled that his mother used to cry on Christmas mornings, because she and Henry were too poor to afford toys for the children. Like most African-American children in the Delta, C. L. Franklin picked cotton to support his family, even as a child, and had just a bare minimum of formal schooling.
When Franklin was in his early teens, he experienced a religious vision that pointed to his future career direc- tion. He said he was asleep in his room one night when he woke to see flames on the wall. "It seemed that one plank only was on fire, but it didn't consume the house," he recalled in his memoir, Give Me This Mountain: Life History and Selected Sermons. "A voice spoke to me from behind the plank and said something like, ‘Go and preach the gospel to all nations.’ I went and told my mother what I had seen and heard. She was very pleased, and she gave me encouragement." According to his memoir, he was informally ordained as a minister by a panel of older clergy when he was seventeen or eighteen years old, and became a traveling circuit preacher and migrant farm worker for a few years before he settled in Memphis, Tennessee, around 1939. He took courses at LeMoyne College and preached from the pulpit of the New Salem Baptist Church.
After a brief marriage in 1934 that ended in divorce, Franklin married Barbara Siggers in 1936, with whom he would have four children: Erma, Cecil, Aretha, and Carolyn. He also adopted Siggers's son, Vaughn, from her previous marriage. His fame grew in Memphis during World War II, and he began to deliver weekly radio sermons that are believed to be the first ever directly broadcast from the pulpit. In 1944 Franklin accepted the pastorship of the Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Buffalo, New York, and two years later moved his family to Detroit to take over at the New Bethel Baptist Church.
Emerged as National Figure
New Bethel was located in the heart of Detroit's black neighborhood known as Black Bottom, anchored by the thriving commercial strip along Hastings Street. The city's black population had swelled considerably during the war, raising racial tensions, and churches such as Franklin's became important centers of community for the newcomers. "In a city full of distinctive preachers, Franklin stood out," wrote Bill McGraw in Michigan History. "He was a spellbinder whose traditional African American oratory combined singing and public speaking. He used his chanting-like whooping at the end of sermons to stir his already emotionally involved congregation to respond with enthusiastic shouts and dancing."
Franklin's reputation grew along with the membership of New Bethel. Again, his sermons were broadcast over the radio, and a local record store owner began recording some of them, which were picked up by Chicago's Chess Records for distribution. Over the years, Franklin made more than seventy albums, and he became a nationally renowned preacher with what was called the "Million Dollar Voice"; he was also referred to as the "Black Prince" and even the "Jitterbug Preacher." With his now-teenage daughters Erma, Aretha, and Carolyn, he embarked upon national lecture tours that also featured notable gospel acts, such as the Clara Ward Singers, Little Sammy Bryant, and Sam Cooke. By 1950, however, his marriage to Siggers was over, and the children—except for Vaughn—remained with him when Siggers moved to Buffalo. She died in 1952 from a heart ailment. For a number of years he was romantically involved with Clara Ward, whom Aretha would later cite as an important artistic mentor to her during her teens.
Franklin's church at Hastings and Willis streets was demolished in an urban-renewal program that eradicated the Black Bottom entirely to make way for an interstate highway in the late 1950s. New Bethel found a new home just a few miles away at a former theater at Linwood and Philadelphia streets, not far from Franklin's palatial home on LaSalle Boulevard. The destruction of the old neighborhood dovetailed with a growing civil rights movement in both Detroit and across the United States, and ministers such as Franklin began to assume more of a leadership role, arguing for fairer wages for black workers and an end to other forms of discrimination. "We are black," the Michigan History article quoted him as saying, "not because we are cursed, for blackness is not a curse; it is a curse only if you think so, and it's not really a curse then; it's just the way you think … the only reason why you entertain a thought like that is because you have been culturally conditioned by some white people to think that way."
At a Glance …
Born Clarence LaVaughn Walker on January 22, 1915, in Sunflower County, MS; died on July 27, 1984, after a long coma, in Detroit, MI; son of Willie Walker and Rachel (Pittman) Franklin; adopted by stepfather, Henry Franklin; married Alene Gaines, October 16, 1934 (divorced); married Barbara Siggers, June 3, 1936; children: (with Siggers) Erma, Cecil, Aretha, Carolyn and (adopted stepson) Vaughn; (with unnamed woman) Carl Ellan Kelley. Religion: Baptist. Education: Attended Greenville Industrial College and LeMoyne College, 1930s.
Career: Ordained a Baptist minister, 1932(?); worked as a traveling circuit preacher during the 1930s; affiliated with New Salem Baptist Church, Memphis, TN, 1939(?)-44(?); Greater Friendship Baptist Church, Buffalo, NY, pastor, 1944-46; New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit, MI, pastor, 1946-79.
Marched with King
Franklin became an important northern ally to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the leading civil rights organizations at the time, and was at King's side during Detroit's Great March to Freedom in June of 1963. Some 125,000 participants marched up Woodward Avenue, the city's main north-south artery, just two months before the historic civil rights March on Washington in the nation's capital. The Detroit event "was the largest civil rights march in the nation to that date, and it energized Detroit's black leaders and put the white-ruled city on notice that blacks would henceforth form an assertive political force," wrote McGraw in Michigan History.
Franklin's influence reached its peak during that decade as he joined forces with other influential black ministers to push for an end to institutional discrimination in the city, whose black population was growing as white residents fled to the suburbs, but whose police, schools, and municipal government remained largely in the hands of whites. With another leading minister in the city, Albert Cleage Jr., Franklin founded the Detroit Council for Human Rights and sought to ease tensions following the devastating race riots that erupted in the city in the summer of 1967. As the civil rights movement began to take a more militant turn, especially after the assassination of King in 1968, integrationists such as Franklin came to be viewed as out of step with the times.
Franklin did allow his church to host a meeting of one black separatist group, the Republic of New Africa, in 1969. The group sought reparations from the federal government and argued for the establishment of a separate black nation in five Southern states. After the meeting ended, shots erupted on the street, and a Detroit police officer was fatally wounded; police rushed into the church and took 142 people into custody. A prominent African-American judge ordered them released, which became a turning point in race relations for the city. Franklin's church would be forever associated with the historic episode, which gave notice to the city's white power structure that a new political voice had emerged.
Lingered in Coma
Franklin's influence in the city waned in the 1970s as his daughter Aretha's national fame grew, and he ignored pleas from his now-grown children to move out of the LaSalle Boulevard house and into a safer neighborhood. On the night of June 10, 1979, Franklin was watching television in an upstairs bedroom when thieves broke in; he surprised them and was shot several times. A neighbor found him hours later, and he was rushed to the hospital. He never regained consciousness, remaining in a coma for the next five years. His funeral in August of 1984 was the largest ever held for an African-American man in the city; civil rights leader Jesse Jackson spoke, and Detroit's first black mayor, Coleman A. Young, was also in attendance.
Franklin's influence in Detroit and on the larger stage of the national civil rights movement was so profound that it was the focus of Salvatore's 2005 book, Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America. The story of Franklin's rise from being the grandchild of slaves in the Mississippi Delta to a position of prestige and authority among African Americans in the mid-twentieth century echoed the trajectory of the larger black experience in America in those decades. "Franklin preached to raise consciousness," Salvatore noted, "of self and of one's relation to society. His faith encouraged individuals in his audiences to assert in private and in public that they were, in fact, somebody. This was Franklin's power. It remains his legacy."
Give Me This Mountain: Life History and Selected Sermons, edited by Jeff Todd Titon, University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Salvatore, Nick, Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America, Little, Brown, 2005.
Journal of Southern History, May 2006, p. 507.
Michigan History, November-December 2000, p. 70.
New York Times, March 31, 1969, p. 1.
New York Times Book Review, February 6, 2005, p. 27.
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