Born in Sunflower County on 22 January 1915, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin became one of the most influential ministers on the twentieth-century national black religious scene and an activist on behalf of racial justice and equality. Franklin barely knew his biological father, Willie Walker, and in 1920 his mother, Rachel Pittman, married Henry Franklin, who adopted the boy. A member of a sharecropping family, C. L. Franklin and his two sisters found peace of mind through their faith in God. He confessed his faith in Christ at St. Peter’s Rock Baptist Church in Cleveland, Mississippi, in 1929. A year later, at the height of the Great Depression, he declared his calling to the ministry. Excelling as a speaker, Franklin was ordained and promoted to associate pastor at St. Peter’s Rock. In 1936 Franklin married Barbara Vernice Siggers of nearby Shelby, and they had four children, Erma, Cecil, Aretha, and Carolyn. Franklin preached at several different Delta churches as a circuit rider.
Franklin and his family moved to Memphis in 1939, when he became pastor of New Salem Baptist Church. During World War II he hosted a weekly radio broadcast in which he sang, preached, and analyzed events concerning black Americans. In part as a response to Franklin’s encouragement, Memphis’s black community bought more than a million dollars in war bonds. In 1944, seeking more financial security, Franklin accepted a position to lead Friendship Baptist Church in Buffalo, New York, where he worked with his congregants who were members of the local black trade union to obtain higher wages. His 1945 sermon at the National Baptist Convention brought him national acclaim, enlarging his audience from the hundreds to the thousands. The following year he accepted a position at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church.
There, Franklin broadened his position as spiritual leader and became more politically active, traveling across the country to preach racial equality. In addition, Franklin’s 23 June 1963 Walk to Freedom, in which he and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led 125,000 people down Detroit’s Woodward Avenue to demand racial equality and raise funds for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, transformed city politics. King later described the event as “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America,” and he gave an early version of the “I Have a Dream Speech” that he delivered at the March on Washington a few months later.
Franklin’s civil rights activities and his preaching took a toll on his marriage, and he and Barbara divorced in 1951. She died the following year, and shortly thereafter, their daughter, Aretha, began singing during services at New Bethel. She subsequently switched to performing secular songs and became the queen of American soul singers.
In one of his most famous sermons, “Give Me This Mountain,” C. L. Franklin lamented, “Blackness is not a curse it is just the same as whiteness. . . . All colors are beautiful in the sight of God.” Franklin’s zeal for racial unity and justice galvanized religion in America. He was shot during an attempted robbery at his Detroit home in 1979 and remained in a coma until his death on 27 July 1984.
- “Detroit’s Walk to Freedom,” http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/7858
- Nick Salvatore, Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America (2005)
- Jeff Titon, ed., Give Me This Mountain: Life History and Selected Sermons of C. L. Franklin (1989)