C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America
There are few American lives more powerful or more moving than that of C. L. Franklin. Born in rural Mississippi, he would go on to become the most famous African American preacher in America. His style of preaching revolutionized the art, and his call for his fellow African Americans to proclaim both their faith and their rights helped usher in the civil rights movement. Booming, soaring, flashy, and intense, C.L. was one of a kind. And yet Franklin was, like many great public figures, immensely complicated. A beacon of faith and light, he also knew the shadows. He knew the power of the Lord, yet he was no saint. In Singing in a Strange Land, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Nick Salvatore tells Franklin’s story for the first time.
Salvatore’s book is the product of eight years of extensive research and interviews. The result is a biography with the arc and detail of a fine novel. It begins in rural Mississippi, in famous Sunflower County, home to Delta soil and the birthplace of the blues. Franklin’s mother was religious, his father, nowhere to be found, and his stepdad, a man of the plow, not the pulpit. But though needed in the fields, Franklin felt a calling he could not resist. Salvatore writes of his early years as a preacher, to Tennessee and then further north. And in Detroit, the young man becomes the legend.
To know Franklin is to know the story of the rise of activism in the black church, but it is also to know the exhilarating tale of the rise of gospel, blues, and soul music in the twentieth century — including that of C. L. Franklin’s own daughter, a girl with a staggering voice and the name Aretha.#
In a May, 2005 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Salvatore talks about the preacher who was at the centerpiece of change for a people and a nation.
photo Walter P. Reuther Library
Reverend C.L. Franklin, from the pulpit of New Bethel Baptist Church, 1977
“What am I saying? I’m saying that sometimes in the midst of our own crises, in the midst of our own life-problems, in the midst of the things that we find ourselves involved in, sometimes the power of our deliverance is in our own power and in our own possession. What you need, my brothers and sisters, is within you. First of all, it’s faith in God, and second, faith in yourself, and thirdly, the will and determination to put these into practice. The man who stands and simply cries will never go over his Red Seas. The man who stands or the woman who simply stands and complains, stands before your Red Seas or your own problems, and simply cries, will never find the way out.”
– C.L. Franklin
What Must I Do To Be Saved, by Reverend C.L. Franklin
JJM What is in your own background that would contribute to a decision to write a biography as challenging as this?
NS I originally went to graduate school at U.C. Berkeley to study African American History because I had a sense that race was really the central divide in American life, yet it seemed that everybody else was talking about class. While they were not wrong, I felt they were missing an even larger story that I have since attempted to tell in my three books.
My first book was a biography of Eugene Debs, the white American labor leader and socialist. My second book was called We All Got History, a biography of an unknown nineteenth century black janitor named Amos Weber, who left a two-thousand page hand-written chronicle behind, from which I wrote his biography.
The glue that holds all three of these subjects together is the alternative perspective they share on the meaning of being an American. They did not simply accept the dominant image that being an American means being an uncritical patriot, or means an acceptance of certain kinds of social relations, whether it be economic, racial, etc. And that is the theme. Gene Debs questioned the meaning of Democracy as America transitioned into an industrial, capitalist society within an entirely different bureaucratic order. Weber, who was a black soldier during the Civil War, questioned the meaning of a political democracy he fought for and his brothers died for as America looked toward reconstruction and the reconfiguring of the American world. C.L. Franklin asked a similar question, adapted to the mid-twentieth century. These are issues and people I find intriguing — people who revere the part of the Declaration of Independence that reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights,” and who question the way those values are applied in modern society.
JJM You wrote, “To know [Reverend C.L. Franklin] is to understand more fully the complex experiences central to modern American life.” Why?
NS Well, for a couple of reasons. One of the things that transformed twentieth century America was the large migration of African Americans out of the rural South, which began in 1915 and continued into the sixties. The South was transformed enormously as a consequence. At first, white southerners were furious about it because they were losing their labor force, but by World War II, technology had transformed the process of picking cotton and they were more than happy to help African Americans move on. This migration fundamentally transformed the cities of the North in terms of social composition, politics and the coming to maturity of a black political voice and a black political presence. In cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago, enormous tensions built around this transition that eventually broke out into violence over jobs and residences — especially throughout the thirties, forties and fifties, but also into the sixties. In 1966, after Martin Luther King marched in Cicero, Illinois for fair and open housing laws, he commented that the violent reaction he and the marchers experienced there was the worst he had ever seen, including Selma and Birmingham.
At the same time this is going on, a music of different tones emerges that fundamentally transforms the way Americans listen to music — Motown, Soul, R&B — so, culturally, a generational transformation takes place. When I use the term “transformation of America” or the phrase that you read from the book’s preface, some readers may assume that I am talking only about civil rights, but the underlying processes that ultimately led to civil rights are equally profound.
JJM The civil rights movement wouldn’t have happened if people didn’t have the courage to speak out. You argue that one of the significant ways they grew courageous enough to speak out was through singing — especially in church. The courage gained through this experience began showing up in popular music as well.
NS That’s right. When a group of people is living in an oppressive and dangerous culture, how do they speak out against it? If you are African American, how do you speak out against an oppressive culture like that found in the Mississippi Delta of 1947? It was very dangerous, and plenty of people were killed trying to do so. So when black people came to a city like Detroit from a state like Mississippi or Arkansas, while they discovered a freedom that didn’t exist for them in the Delta, they weren’t sure how to express themselves after being raised in a culture that threatened them for speaking out. In the process of finding one’s voice, church hymns and sermons became critically important. Through his sermons, C.L. Franklin encouraged people to find their voice.
JJM How did his childhood experiences lead to an interest in preaching?
NS At the time, structurally or sociologically there were really only three things a young black man could do other than farm someone else’s land. One would be to preach, a second would be a blues musician, and the third was to become a funeral director, provided he had economic resources. These were the only three occupations in the segregated South that whites had very little control over. A Baptist preacher is called by the congregation, and paid by the congregation. I don’t mean to suggest that there were not efforts by whites in the southern Baptist convention to influence black preachers, because there were, but the point is that the minister ultimately had to report to the congregation. Similarly, if a blues musician was good, and if people enjoyed them and went to listen to them on Saturday night, they made a living of sorts. The reason there was a market for black funeral directors is because no white funeral director would take a dead black body.
So, the choices beyond picking cotton were very limited, and Franklin understood very early that he was not going to spend his life picking cotton. It wasn’t just because he hated agricultural work that made him want to do something else. He talked of an experience of working a plot of land on a plantation outside of Cleveland, Mississippi, that ran up to the railroad tracks parallel to Highway 61, where he saw the cars and trains in movement, all traveling elsewhere. In later years he identified this as the moment he experienced what he called “the deep longing” to know where the people in those cars and trains were going. This ignited the first conscious stirrings within him that he was not going to allow the limitations imposed by Mississippi define his sense of the possible. He also talked about how his mother had a tremendously powerful and positive influence on his decision to preach, but he just knew he was not going to spend his life in agriculture if he could, in any way, have anything to say about it.
JJM How did music inspire him as a young adult?
NS He listened to all sorts of music. Even though his family was very poor, they owned a stand up Victrola. He loved listening to Roosevelt Sykes, and he listened to other blues singers. He also listened to a preacher out of Atlanta, J. M. Gates, who ultimately recorded an enormous number of three minute sermons in the twenties and thirties. That is all I am sure he listened to.
The social pattern surrounding the use of the Victrola was very interesting. It was not unusual for the people who didn’t own a Victrola to buy the records and bring them to the home of a friend who did. It became another way of socializing. Even in very strict religious households, children were allowed to listen to music as long as they didn’t dance or cross their legs. They listened to the blues as well as recorded hymns and sermons. B.B. King tells the story about how, as a child, there was no distinction between Saturday night and Sunday morning — that the same people who were at the juke joints were in church pews on Sunday morning.
JJM Of a religious experience King attended as a young boy, he explained, “[The minister] says one thing and the congregations says it back, back and forth, back and forth, until we’re rocking together in a rhythm that won’t stop. His voice is low and rough and his guitar high and sweet, they seem to sing to each other, conversing in some heavenly language I need to learn. No room for fear here; no room for doubt; it’s a celebration of love.”
NS Yes. He is referring to the call and response pattern so central to African American as well as African music, which is as prominent in secular as in sacred music. King said that whenever he was in Detroit, no matter how late he was up on Saturday night playing a gig, he was in the first row at New Bethel Baptist — C.L. Franklin’s church — at 10:45 Sunday morning. He called Reverend Franklin “my main preacher.”
One of the things Franklin did that was so important was insist people rethink the divide between the sacred and the secular so many people before him felt was inviolable, and music and politics were central to this. He was once being criticized for opening up his church to prostitutes and pimps and responded to the critics by telling them their problem was that they had too much religion and didn’t understand their relationship between their faith and the world they lived. That is what was really important to him.
JJM What were sermons like before Franklin?
NS There were many variations, but there at least two major traditions. One was what became known as the manuscript preachers, who literally wrote out their sermon. They viewed sermons as a kind of learned discourse, or learned essays, and they would not give in to or encourage emotional responses. They would often quote from authorities and theologians or whomever they felt were pertinent to the sermon. These could be wonderful, powerful sermons, but they were certainly not meant to appeal to the congregation in any kind of an emotive way regarding the their faith or secular issues of the day.
Some of Franklin’s good friends were manuscript preachers, but Franklin wasn’t. He was what they called the “whooper,” a minister who chanted at least a part of his sermon. He might work on a sermon in his head for four or five months in advance of delivering it. During this time he would discuss with other Detroit ministers the meanings of scripture, and perhaps get suggestions for readings to use within the sermon. After this preparation time, he would go into the pulpit with just a small piece of paper with only a couple of phrases on it — not even an outline — and in a narrative voice, begin telling a story. He always began with the biblical text, which was a way of evoking his connections to the divine authority. The story always had a moral lesson of some sort, and it almost always was one that had the interplay between the sacred and the secular, because even in his most secular moments, he retained the core sense of his faith vision. During the sermon, every now and then he would tune a word, giving it a musical intonation which in part was to begin the process of encouraging the call and response pattern that let the congregation know he knew where they also wanted to go. By doing this, he was working toward a moment where the congregation would come close to experiencing their god on that Sunday rather than just hearing the message. By the final one-third of the sermon, his tuning of words transformed his preaching into a rhythmic and chanting presentation while retaining the pertinent message at its core.
One minister put it to me very vividly, saying that many other ministers tried to whoop or chant when they had run out of ideas, and it ultimately just became noise. But for C.L. Franklin, it was never just noise — even as he chanted and raised the emotive level, he remained focused on the message he was trying to communicate to the congregation.
JJM Concerning that, you wrote, “What made C.L. such an extraordinary preacher was that even as he brought the congregation to this peak, he continued to address contemporary issues. As the caged eagle had been touched by the flock above, so too might individuals constrained by segregation find within community self-identity, group cohesiveness, and, ultimately, freedom.”
NS Absolutely. A very powerful sermon where he does that is in “Dry Bones in the Valley,” which is out of the Book of Ezekial. It is the famous story of how the bones are interconnected — the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone, etc. — and he tells it in a way that, as he reaches an emotional peak, has you realizing it is you he is rescuing from human fracture; and he is saying that there is a wholeness here, something that is complete here. It was an absolutely stunning performance.
JJM In 1939, the black political scientist Ralph J. Bunche wrote, “The Negro preachers of Memphis as a whole have avoided social questions. They have preached thunder and lightening, fire and brimstone, and Moses out of the bulrushes, but about the economic and political exploitation of local blacks they have remained silent.” How much influence did this essay have on Franklin and other black preachers?
NS I don’t know if Franklin ever read this essay, he may have just talked about it. It is pretty ironic because Bunche — a brilliant guy who went on to win a Nobel Prize — was one of a group of highly secular, intellectual black activists in the thirties who held pretty disdainful attitudes, for the most part, toward religion, especially in the black communities. He felt there were too many examples of preachers doing exactly what he said in the remark you quoted from, which was to talk about “pie in the sky,” the joy of life after death, and how blacks had to bear with the pain of contemporary life. There is no question that there is truth to this. C.L. Franklin even understood this because early on, when he left Mississippi in 1939, he was a self-described fundamentalist who preached only about the after-life, but he came to understand that finding one’s voice meant one had to make that broader connection between the sacred and the secular.
Ironically, it was a group of older ministers in Memphis who were instrumental in bringing Franklin toward that line of thinking, just two years after Bunche wrote the essay. So, in a sense, Bunche worked off an image that had some real basis in life and experience, but it became a stereotype. If he had spent more time in Memphis, Bunche would have found, as Franklin himself did, ministers who didn’t share that stereotyped approach he wrote about in the essay.