Robert Franklin is worried about America. He sees distance, mistrust, and division in society eroding the foundations of U.S. democracy. A student of political science, Franklin understands that changing demographics, geographic isolation, identity politics, and economic inequality are all factors in the country’s polarization. But the James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor at Emory University sees a deeper cause as well: a failure of moral leadership.
“Benjamin Franklin talked about a common moral agenda and shared values as the key to knitting people together, because the United States would not be religiously or ethnically homogeneous,” he says. “It's a sense of common aspiration to create a just society that is inclusive of all people. We've had leaders from Abraham Lincoln, to Eleanor Roosevelt, to Martin Luther King, and many others who have tried to steer us along those lines. When we don't have those voices in the public square, we find refuge in like-minded communities that deepen polarization.”
Whether as a scholar of social ethics at Emory and the University of Chicago, as the President Emeritus of Morehouse College, or as program officer in human rights and social justice at the Ford Foundation, Dr. Robert M. Franklin, MDiv ’78, has for 40 years been a public voice for moral leadership. For this work—and for achievements that embody Harvard Divinity School’s hybrid mission of scholarship, ministry, and professional service—Franklin’s fellow HDS alumni/ae will celebrate him Thursday, April 12 as a 2018 Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honoree.
“Rev. Gomes was my mentor both while I was a student and thereafter as I led Morehouse College,” says Franklin. “I am humbled by the privilege of receiving an honor that bears his name.”
Inspired by King
Franklin grew up in Chicago, the son of a devout Christian mother and a father who was initially skeptical of organized religion. He was a senior in high school thinking about college when he “saw the cities on fire” after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Inspired by King’s model of service and self-sacrifice, Franklin chose to attend Morehouse College, the alma mater of the slain civil rights leader and a place where intellectual rigor and a commitment to social justice went hand in hand.
Throughout his undergraduate years, Franklin experienced a “gentle tug… a yearning for a greater sense of humanity and for participation in the global human family.” The tug turned gradually into a call through study abroad, Christian fellowship, and an encounter with the writings of C.S. Lewis and others that “added a little more intellectual structure to my faith” and helped him live with faith and doubt intertwined. He returned to Morehouse for his senior year a different man than when he left and unsure of what he would do after graduation.
“My dream and goal had been to go to Harvard Law School,” Franklin says. “After I came back from Durham, I realized I was asking different questions. I didn’t want to go to law school anymore, but I still wanted to go to Harvard.”
One evening, Franklin walked out of the Morehouse library and spied a large bin of discarded university catalogs. At the top, he saw HDS’s crimson and white book. Franklin had no idea that Harvard had a divinity school and was intrigued by the course offerings. He filled out the reply card to get more information and dropped it in the post. Two weeks later he received an application. He quickly applied, was accepted, and soon found himself on one end of a phone call with HDS Professor Preston Williams, who was interim dean at the time.
“Preston gave me a personal phone call and urged me to come,” Franklin says. “I chose the MDiv program because there was this part of me that wanted to serve and do ministry as well as teach, research, and explore.”
Franklin came to HDS to get skill in the practical arts of ministry and a solid intellectual foundation in Biblical studies, religious history, and theology. What he encountered was a “spiritual marketplace of ideas from many different traditions” and “a universalizing vision of common humanity.” In addition to Williams, the scholar of race and religion, Franklin gravitated to the “brilliant New Testament lectures” of Father George McRae, S.J., and to Professor Harvey Cox for his religious analysis of popular culture. Perhaps no one at HDS influenced Franklin’s notion of the public voice more than Rev. Peter Gomes, whom Franklin calls “an important model” of moral leadership and public voice.
During his time at the Divinity School, Franklin, in partnership with HDS alumnus Samuel Hogan, also started a religious program for young people on a local radio station. Over the course of a year or so, the show developed a devoted audience, which turned into a weekly Bible study in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. Out of the Bible study came the call to start a church. Franklin and Hogan had no space, so they asked HDS Dean Krister Stendahl if they could use the chapel in Andover Hall, the School’s main classroom building. Stendahl agreed and that summer, for the first time in its history, HDS became the site of an African American church.
The development caught the eye—and ear—of one of the neighborhood’s most well-known residents.
“Sunday mornings brought a caravan of cars on Francis Avenue,” Franklin remembers. “I wanted to make sure there were no problems with the neighbors, so I walked out onto the street to take a look. Here comes this tall, elegant gentleman walking two or three dogs. He's listening to the choir inside rehearsing right before services. He asked me what was going on in there. I told him we have a church and we're meeting here during the summer, and that I hoped it wasn’t disturbing anyone. He smiled and he listened to the gospel music and said, ‘No, no. I think the neighborhood needs more of that.’ It was the economist John Kenneth Galbraith.”
A Legacy of Impact
After graduating from HDS in 1978, Franklin was ordained a minister in the Church of God in Christ and returned home to the University of Chicago, where in 1985 he obtained a PhD in ethics and society, and religion and the social sciences. From there, he embarked on a remarkable career as an educator, author, minister, and thought leader. Of his many achievements, Franklin says that three stand out for the impact they’ve had. The first is his work at the Ford Foundation, where he was program officer in human rights and social justice and an adviser to the foundation’s president on religion and public life initiatives.
“It was an opportunity to facilitate grant making to organizations that were deserving but often uncertain of how to approach a major foundation,” he says. “Ford funds globally, so I spent lots of time in South Africa, Mexico, and many other places. We also opened the grant making portfolio for religion and funded things like community development corporations and credit unions sponsored by churches and synagogues. Ford funded national organizations that were focused on faith-based community economic development.”
Second, Franklin is particularly proud of the five years he spent as president of Morehouse College (2007-2012), where he attracted new donors and challenged toxic narratives about young men of color. Franklin cherished the opportunity to help young students develop into the kinds of moral leaders he says the country so badly needs today. He developed a philosophy called “the five wells” for undergraduates: to be well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-dressed, and well-balanced. Parents were thrilled with the vision, but Franklin wondered if students would adopt it—until he saw students wearing t-shirts on campus with the five wells emblazoned on them. He says that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Morehouse exist to encourage excellence and leadership for those who are often marginalized, stereotyped, and disparaged.
“HBCUs are custom-made for students who often feel excluded from institutions of higher education in the larger society,” Franklin explains. “It's important that students understand they have the ability to excel in the sciences and humanities, but also that their education comes with a moral obligation to serve and to lift others. At Morehouse, we took seriously the importance of instilling a sense of community and public service and of preserving a legacy of struggle and high aspiration.”
Finally, Franklin says that he’s been able to reach and inspire vast new audiences through the three books he’s written: Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities (2007); Another Day’s Journey: Black Churches Confronting the American Crisis (1997); and Liberating Visions: Human Fulfillment and Social Justice in African American Thought (1990).
“I've been able to reach people whom I've never met, never seen,” he says. “I receive emails and correspondence from people who say ‘You helped us name a problem or a challenge and you provided some insight.’ Publication, research, and publishing, have enabled me to empower others.”
Today, in addition to his position at Emory and another at the Chatauqua Institution, where he directs the religion department, Franklin is working on another book. With it, he hopes to inspire others to raise their own voice in public and to take up the mantle of moral leadership.
“I define moral leaders as women and men who act with integrity, with courage, and with imagination, to serve the common good,” Franklin says. “I focus on leaders who are alive today: from Pope Francis, Malala Yousafzai, and the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement to the founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream.”
While he remains concerned about the country’s future—and disappointed by what he sees as the cynical political calculus adopted by many in the religious community—Franklin remains an optimist. He believes that there is a new generation ready to be inspired to public leadership, just as he was inspired 50 years ago by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We can recalibrate our moral compass,” he says. “We can repair this breach. Young people are ready to lead. It’s the responsibility of my generation to show them how.”
—by Paul Massari