Aretha Franklin With Her Father, Rev. C. L. Franklin
Originally uploaded by panafnewswire.
The Black Church and the Transformation of America"
A Book by Professor Nick Salvatore, Little, Brown, New York,
Review Written by Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor,
Pan-African News Wire
This book, which has been in the works for eight years, makes
an attempt to provide the first comprehensive historical
research study into the life of the most famous African-
American clergyman to emerge during the mid-twentieth
Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin made a tremendous mark on African-American history in both the religious and secular
realms. His life, which extended from the World War I period
(born in 1915) to the post civil rights era of emergent Black
political power (he died in July of 1984). Franklin, who was
born in Sunflower County, Mississippi, was a son of
sharecroppers who worked very hard in the cotton producing
areas in the Delta. He sought from his teenage years to
transcend the legacy of slavery that had been imposed on
African people after the Civil War and continued a half-
century to a century later.
Salvatore places Franklin within the historical context that
he grew out of and eventually sought to transform. This
Cornell University professor who is originally from Brooklyn,
takes on a very difficult task. The grinding poverty of the
Jim Crow South left very little documented historical traces
and insights into individual family life. School attendance
was generally sporadic in rural communities. Even church
life did not leave much historical record for the researcher
or the casual observer. Illiteracy was very high and the
transient life of many families did not provide the social
stability needed to preserve records and artifacts that would
supply future generations with a portrait of the everyday
occurences of Afrian-Americans eking out an existence under
In the opening chapters Salvatore begins by painting a
picture of the life of C.L. Franklin and his family with
broad strokes. He discusses the conditions prevailing during
the early twentieth century in the Mississippi Delta. He
acknowledges the lack of documents that could substantiate a
chronology of events. Consequently, he relies on the oral
history derived from the personal recollections of those
living during the early years of Franklin's life and their
There are those he cites who knew C.L. Franklin personally as
well as others who had no personal connection to the subject
of the study but are utilized to provide a general idea of
what life was like at the time and how these remembered
experiences related to the life of the soon to be famous
clergyman and social activist.
These oral histories provide the mainstay of the first few
chapters of the book. Consequently the initial pages will
provide the reader with the most difficult reading due to the
high degree of speculation as it relates to issues such as
personal experiences, world outlooks and human responses to
historical events deemed important by the historian.
Problems of Methodology
Even if there were greater and more precise documentation on
the early years of C.L. Franklin, there is the problem of
interpretation of such data. This same difficulty would also
present itself as it relates to the oral interviews conducted
by the author who comes from a totally different racial and
socio-economic background from those who are the subjects of
These racial and socio-economic differences carry extreme
weight in the United States. This problem is revealed in
many of the interviews conducted by the writers during the
New Deal Federal Writer's Project studies who were hired by
the American government to record the "folk history" of
heretefore largely ignored groups. The interviews conducted
by other African-Americans working on the New Deal era
projects were carried out with greater care and clarity.
However, the problems associated with the differences in
social status between African-Americans and whites were not
merely incidental, but are fundamental. Prior to the civil
rights gains of the 1960s, African-Americans, particularly in
the South, as a survival mechanism conveyed to whites what
the dominant racial group wanted to hear as opposed to what
was actually on their minds. An act of honesty or candor
could be a matter of life or death. Therefore the issues
related to how the questions are formulated and asked
determined what type of responses the interviewee will convey
to the field researcher.
These historical realties related to racial and class
oppression in the United States can also effect the memory of
the persons being interviewed and how they choose to
recollect and express their perceptions of what happened,
particularly during the pre-civil rights era. Issues such as
geneological lineage can become highly sensitive when it is
conveyed to a purported objective observer or recorder.
Racial violence against African-Americans during the post
slavery period has spawned various responses from the vicitm
communities. Many are unwilling to discuss such issues even
if they have initimate first-hand knowledge of specific
incidents of mob violence against African-Americans.
In addition, the suppression of the collective African-
American historical memory has also become a coping
mechanism among some. There has been a tendency to
refrain from imparting negative and horrific experiences on to younger generations reasoning that such direct conveyance of
experience may cripple one's ability to function in the
modern world where racial disparties still play a significant
role in shaping the character of social relations in the
Salvatore's Interpretation of C.L. Franklin's Life
Despite the sparsity of information on Franklin's early
years, a clearer picture is painted beginning in 1929 when he
joins the St. Peter's Rock Baptist Church in Cleveland,
Mississippi. It is from this point on that the young Delta
resident began to come into his own as a personality and
It is Franklin's own recollections decades later that serve
as the basis for the historical accounts put forward by Prof.
Salvatore. In 1977 and 1978, musicologist Jeff Todd Titon
conducted a series of extensive interviews with Rev. C.L.
Franklin in Detroit. During this same period a number of his
sermons were videotaped by Titon who later published the
first book on Franklin entitled: "Give Me This Mountain: Life
History and Selected Sermons of Reverend C.L. Franklin,
Urbana, Ill, 1989. According to Salvatore, the actual
transcripts from these interviews run approximately 250
pages. A much shorter edited version of these transcripts
serve as the introduction to "Give Me This Mountain."
By 1931, Franklin reports having a dream which symbolizes
God's calling for him to preach the gospel to the world.
After sharing this experience with his mother, Mrs. Rachel
Franklin, she encourages him to pursue this revelation. He
eventually approaches his Pastor at St. Peter's Rock in
Cleveland, Mississippi and soon preaches his inaugural
sermon. Prior to this Franklin recalls his fear of speaking
before a crowd during a church program. After an
admonishment from his mother, who warned him to never stutter
or freeze-up before a church audience again, he is well on
his way to becoming an accomplished speaker.
He then goes on the church circuit preaching as a guest
minister at several churches. According to his own personal
account he eventually has four churches which he covers on a
regular basis. There, of course, is a conflict between his
step-father Henry Franklin and himself over priorities. His
step-father forces him to make a decision between the pulpit
or the plow. He chooses the pulpit and the rest is history.
By 1939 he is offered a pastor's position at a small Baptist
church in Memphis called New Salem.
Between 1939 and 1944, Rev. Franklin advances rapidly at the
church and throughout the city, where in 1942, he creates his
first radio broadcast" "Shadow of the Cross", which ran for
30 minutes once a week.
Even though the demands of poverty inherent in the
sharecropping system prevents him from completing 8th grade,
while still in Mississippi he later attends Greenfield
Industrial College. This unaccredited school emphasized a
conservative religious viewpoint focusing on a literal
interpretation of the Bible. Franklin's hunger for learning
leads him to become a varacious reader. In Memphis he
enrolls as a "special student" at LeMoyne College where took
courses in Sociology and History.
Franklin's meger of religion and the social gospel becomes
evident in Memphis when broadcasting his radio program after
1942, he creates a section of the show that highlights local,
national and world events. At some point the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
organizer Shirley Graham is a guest on "Shadow of the
Cross". Graham, who later married W.E.B. Dubois in the early
1950s, was one of the most articulate advocates of racial
justice during this period.
By 1944, C.L. Franklin is offered an opportunity to pastor
Friendship Baptist Church in Buffalo, New York. He also
creates a weekly radio broadcast and has his first contact
with African-American trade unionists. During his sermons at
Friendship Baptist that were broadcast over the radio, he
reflects on the impact of the conclusion of World War II on
race relations and social equality in the United States.
The most pivotal experience of Rev. Franklin's life and
career comes in 1945 when he is invited to deliver a major
address at the National Baptist Convention held that year at
Olympia Stadium on the west side of Detroit. His address
leaves such an impression that he is invited to takeover as
pastor at the New Bethel Baptist Church located on Hastings
Street, the major commercial and social strip in the
burgeoining African-American community after World War II.
Franklin considers the move to Detroit as a major phase in
By 1949 he sets out to re-build New Bethel Baptist Church,
which is completed with considerable struggle in 1951. The
church by this time is becoming a major force in the
religious life of "Paradise Valley", one of the residential
and business enclaves where African-Americans were confined
during this period in Detroit's history. In 1951, C.L.
Franklin initiates his weekly radio broadcast in the city.
When the program is switched to W-JLB in 1952 it becomes a
major attraction for people throughout the city.
The following year in 1953, Franklin is approached by
independent record producer and businessman Joe Von Battle
with a proposal to record his sermons, press them into vinyl
and to distribute them as widely as possible. Battle's
Hastings Street record store and studio was a major cultural
focal point in Paradise Valley. Franklin's records were
prominently advertised on the windows of Joe Von Battle's
store and studio. On a regular basis the entrepreneur places
speakers outside the store blasting Rev. Franklin's recorded
sermons to the thousands that thronged Hastings causing
traffic jams and crowds.
As a result of the Sunday night broadcasts, Franklin attracts
thousands to New Bethel Baptist Church. He later becomes a
major attraction on the touring gospel circuit that primarily
featured the top singing groups and personalities of the
period such as the Ward Singers, the Soul Stirrers, Little
Sammy Bryant and others.
In 1956, W-LAC in Nashville, a radio station that through its
powerful signal could be heard all over the southern United
States as well as other regions, began to feature weekly
sermons from New Bethel Baptist Church on Sunday evenings.
These broadcasts enhanced Franklin's popularity immensely on
a national level. He soon featured his daughter Aretha
Franklin, in a 1956 album that marked her initial entry into
the recording world. She would later sign with Columbia
Records in 1960 to sing popular music. By 1967, her contract
with Atlantic Records catapulted her into the role as
the "Queen of Soul."
Randy's Record Mart, the nightly broadcast from W-LAC in
Nashville was a treasured part of African-American cultural
life durng the 1950s and 1960s. This phenomena coupled with
the new distribution arrangements between Joe Von Battle's
record labels such as JVB records and the Chicago-based Chess
Records, made C.L. Franklin the most widely known African-
American clergyman during this period.
As the civil rights movement picked-up speed after the 1954
Brown vs. Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court decision outlawing
legalized school segregation and the brutal lynching of of
Emmit Till in Money, Mississippi in June of 1955, New Bethel
Baptist Church under Franklin began to focus more attention
on the mass struggles sweeping the South. That same year
Franklin creates the Political Action Guild which focuses on
voter registration and mutual aid to the poor. In 1963 Rev.
Franklin played a leading role along with other New Bethel
members such as James Del Rio and Benjamim J, McFall, in
organizing the first anti-racist mass demonstration in the
This demonstration was held on June 23, 1963 down Woodward
avenue. Its participation drew crowds estimated between
125,000 and 250,000. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had
relied on Franklin's leadership of the march came to Detroit
for the demonstration where at Cobo Hall he delivered an
earlier and more extended version of his famous "I Have A
Franklin had been instrumental earlier that year in providing
material support for the Birminingham campaign where hundreds
of African-Americans were arrested, brutalized and persecuted
for their public stand against legalized segregation in this
southern industrial city. The Detroit Council for Human
Rights (DCHR) was formed that year and sought to build a city-
wide coalition to advance the interest of the African-
American community in Detroit which constituted approximately
30% of the city's population.
By this time New Bethel Baptist Church had been forced to
move from its large structure on Hastings and Willis as a
result of the white-dominated city's "urban renewal project."
This move, which followed the wiping out of the Hastings
Street residential, commercial and social district created
strong resentment within the African-American community. New
Bethel was forced to close in 1961 and later had its building
razed by the city. It maintained temporary facilities on
12th Street for two years before it re-located to its present
home on Linwood and Philadelphia in March of 1963.
Aftermath of the 1963 March and the Rise of Black Detroit
Despite a split within the Detroit Council for Human Rights
in the aftermath of the June march, (a rift which marked
fundamental differences between Rev. Franklin and Rev. Albert
B. Cleage of the Central Congregational Church located
several blocks south on Linwood from New Bethel), African-
Americans began to forcefully exert their political will on
the city. By the time of the 1967 rebellion, racial tensions
had reached new and unprecedented heights. This rebellion
was the most widespread and destructive in American history.
The center of the 1967 rebellion was focused around New
Bethel Baptist Church.
Later in 1969, the so-called "New Bethel Incident", where the
one-year-old Republic of New Africa (RNA) held its national
conference, generated a political controversy that
permanently altered the social landscape of the city. In the
immediate aftermath of the RNA gathering at New Bethel, two
white rookie police officers were gunned down outside the
church. One officer died and another was seriously wounded.
In a matter of minutes dozens of police surrounded the church
and shot their way into the building wounding five people and
arresting 142 others.
After the release of all but two of the conference
participants by Recorder's Court Judge George Crockett, Jr.
later that Sunday, the police and Detroit's white power
structure attempted to isolate Crockett, Franklin and anyone
else who opposed the police actions at the church that
Despite these efforts by the white dominated city
administration, the African-American community was
galvanized and created a broad-based coalition to defeat
these attacks. All suspects in the shooting of the white
officers were eventually acquitted.
This book represents an important contribution to the
chronicling of an important figure in the rise of Black
political power in Detroit. In 1973, State Representative
Coleman A. Young was elected as the first African-American
mayor of Detroit. However, Salvatore's interpretation and
analysis of developments in Detroit after 1963 leaves much to
Although he recognizes the important contributions of Rev.
C.L. Franklin in enhancing and molding a sense of group
consciousness and fortitude in Black Detroit, the author does
not fully grasp the role of organizations such as Cleage's
Central Congregational Church, the Freedom Now Party, the
Republic of New Africa and the League of Revolutionary Black
Workers. In addition, he mistakenly labels Franklin's
approach as integrationist despite his deep roots in African-
American culture, history, religious and social life.
Salvatore documents the government harassment of Franklin
through attacks by the Internal Revenue Service in 1966-67
and the attempted frame-up on marijuana charges after
the "New Bethel incident" in 1969. However, he does not
delve into what possible role the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) may have played in these developments
during the 1960s. Also Detroit police maintained an
aggressive intelligence division that spyed on a broad array
of activists during this period. The existence of the "Red
Squad Files" became public knowledge by the late 1970s in
Future studies on the life and works of Rev. C.L. Franklin
could attempt to retrieve his FBI files and other government
documents that could shed light on the destabilization
programs which led to the assassination of Malcolm X, Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., and many members of the Black
Panther Party as well as Chaka Fuller of the Republic of New
Africa, who was acquitted in the shooting of the white
officers outside New Bethel in 1969.
Franklin's tragic shooting in June of 1979 marked the end of
an era in the history of Detroit and the African-American
community as a whole. His legacy lives through the continued
activist posture of New Bethel Baptist Church under the
leadership of Rev. Robert Smith, Jr. who took control in 1982
during Rev. Franklin's incapacitation resulting from his
wounds suffered during a botched burglary at his home on
LaSalle Blvd. in 1979.
In July of 1984 Franklin made his transition. His funeral
was perhaps the largest in Detroit's history with an
estimated 10,000 people crowded in and around New Bethel
Professor Salvatore's book is a must read for those seeking
new avenues of exploration aimed at revealing many aspects of
the hidden history of the African-American people.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire
and has published dozens of articles in publications
throughout the United States, Canada and the world. He
covered the February 2005 visit of Professor Nick Salvatore
to Detroit where the Cornell University researcher made
presentations at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State
University and the New Bethel Baptist Church.