Robert Franklin on the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Robert Franklin on the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Morehouse College president Robert Franklin explains Dr. King's influence on his life and his leadership at the historic college.

Published August 23, 2011

When Dr. Robert M. Franklin was a child growing up in Chicago, he was captivated by the conversations and debates taking place in his community after the evening news in response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights efforts. Some of his neighbors were baffled about why King would embarrass the city and its mayor by protesting public housing that was both segregated and in terrible condition. Others, like Franklin, admired his courage. He later vowed to become a renaissance Morehouse Man after becoming inspired to follow in the footsteps of the person some might call the ultimate Morehouse Man. In the days leading up to the dedication of the monument honoring King and his legacy, Franklin talked with about how King has influenced him and his leadership of Morehouse College. What is your most compelling memory of Dr. King?


Dr. Robert M. Franklin: A most compelling memory was watching Dr. King’s funeral ceremony, at which people recounted stories of his life and the president of Morehouse, Benjamin Elijah Mays, provided a eulogy and talked about this extraordinary young leader. That image—of this dignified group of faculty, staff and students gathered with thousands of people and VIPs to honor Dr. King—had a riveting effect on me and really imprinted me with the Morehouse mystique and the desire to attend the college.


How has King influenced your life?


Franklin: Pursuing higher education up to the point of earning a Ph.D.—that was a direct result of King’s impact on me. My style of activism has been deeply imprinted by King. It is formed by research and data. He had a great respect for social theory, understanding how people operate in groups. It was important for him to understand that in order to lead a mass movement. Also, his commitment to writing and writing well had a great impact on my desire to become an author. Morehouse owns King’s most important papers and it’s a real thrill for this college to be able to urge our students to read his papers and challenge them to improve their writing.


What was Morehouse like when he was a student there?


Franklin: Not many people outside of the African-American community knew about Morehouse. It was a small college of about 600 students but with a culture of leadership throughout the campus. Morehouse always tried to provide every student with a psychological advantage to excel and to lead, but also to serve.


Do you know what kind of student King was?


Franklin: I chuckle about this because Morehouse students have to enroll in about 40 courses to graduate. We’ve looked at his transcript and I don’t think he’d be embarrassed to hear me say that he earned more Cs than As and Bs. He even earned a C in public speaking. We laugh at that today as a reminder that grades are not great predictors of greatness later in life.


Was King an activist in those days?


Yes, but I would say he was more of an intellectual, low-key activist and not as prominent and public as some other students. King published articles in the campus paper [in which] he talked about social justice and the need for racial justice. The need for Black unity was a strong theme. We should also remember that he was at Morehouse from age[s] 15 to 19, so he was very young.


How does his legacy influence your leadership at the institution?


Franklin: I arrived at Morehouse in 1971, three years after his assassination, determined to follow in his footsteps as an educator and a moral leader. My vision to produce renaissance men with a social conscience and global perspective was a direct result of studying King’s life before I became president of Morehouse in 2007.


What kinds of programs and activities does Morehouse implement to train its students to emulate King by becoming leaders?


Franklin: During King’s day it was the weekly chapel service, but we now call it the Crowned Forum and require all students to attend the weekly forum for ideas, debate and the exchange of perspectives. We expose them to thought leaders, change agents, decision makers and people who are making history. King first heard about Mahatma Gandhi in chapel and said he left with his mind just aflame with the idea of using nonviolent, mass demonstrations for leading social change in America. There also is a community service requirement. Right now, the big focus is on mentoring young boys of color and teaching.


What impact would you like the King monument to have on visitors?


Franklin: This memorial is a trophy for history’s oppressed, the unnamed millions who marched, bled, sacrificed and died for the sake of freedom and equality. I think it’s a tremendous affirmation that nonviolence, persistence and love can win the day.  I hope that this will also be a challenge to today’s leaders.  It’s so appropriate that this monument is in Washington during these particular years.  Because, in a polarized political culture and further polarizing along economic and racial lines, we need to see, we need to bump into the King monument and be challenged by what I like to call his 'folded arms of loving impatience with America.'


(Photo: Morehouse College)

Written by Joyce Jones


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