Franklin Explores Meaning of King’s Legacy Today

Candler School of Theology. Photo by Jason Oh.
Candler School of Theology. Photo by Jason Oh.

“How will we know we are living up to King’s vision? How will we know we are on the way forward?”

Dr. Robert M. Franklin, the new James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at the Candler School of Theology, lectured to a room of over 50 people on Wednesday morning as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Week events.

The lecture, titled “From Here to There: Dr. King’s Vision, Our Current Reality and the Way Forward,” is one in a series of periodic talks that Candler holds on Wednesdays at 11 a.m. Last Wednesday’s lecture was particularly timely, given Emory’s week-long celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., according to Jan Love, dean of the Candler School of Theology.

Franklin is also the senior advisor for community and diversity at Emory, the director of the Religion Department at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York and the president emeritus of Morehouse College.

During the lecture, Franklin emphasized King’s role as not just a social activist but also as a man of faith. King was a minister who once preached at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Franklin highlighted King’s belief of the interconnectedness of all people.

Highlighting King’s determination to challenge the status quo, Franklin discussed King’s decision to move to Western Chicago.

“Pay attention to that decision,” Franklin said. “He did not move to Los Angeles or New York, he moves to Chicago … and confronts the system there in Chicago. It was a rat infested Ghetto town.”

King moved there to bring light to poor quality of public housing in that area of Chicago, and this was the beginning of the Chicago Open Housing Movement in 1965.

Franklin highlighted the special quality of the tribute paid by those who share King’s identity as Christians and clergy.

“We know the great questions that haunted [King’s] evening hours, the debates with biblical and literary critics, arguments with theologians and ethicists and the pressures to churn out a dissertation,” Franklin said. “We know the special joy and burdens of writing intellectual sermons … And we know, as he did, something about the inevitable joy as peoples lives transform in response to the witness, work and words of our faithful and flawed churches.”

He also noted the importance of King’s animated vision of interdependence, citing the concluding chapter of King’s last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? The book, which he referred to as “King’s last testament,” affirms that all people are interdependent whether they realize it or not.

“In the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge which is provided for us by a Pacific Islander,” Franklin said, quoting King’s book. “We reach for a soap that is created by a European. Then, at the table, we drink coffee, which is provided for us by a South American.”

According to King, this example shows that before we even leave for work or school in the morning, “we are already beholden to more than half the world.”
Franklin also talked about recent incidents that have sparked racial tension around the United States, including the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, both unarmed African American men, and the resulting protests. Franklin noted that unarmed men of color face an unacceptably high-risk of being killed by a small number of police officers who, according to Franklin, regard them through the lens of prejudice.

However, Franklin said he was proud of the “die-in” that Candler and other Emory students staged days after a grand jury did not indict a police officer in the death of Garner.

The die-in was “a powerful testament to solidarity with the least advantaged members of the community,” Franklin said.

Through the die-in, Candler affirmed that it is unacceptable for unarmed black men to loose their lives in interactions with law enforcement professionals, Franklin said.

As for the way forward, Franklin identifies three zones of moral actions in which people of faith must engage. First, he identified the zone of police and community relations.

“Moral leaders must step into those places where there is mistrust and fear, with visions and values of interdependence, respect and hope,” Franklin said.

Secondly, he identified the importance of providing discipline and moral education to young people, and thirdly, he urged moral leaders to step out of their ethnic enclaves.

After the lecture, Love wrote in an email to the Wheel that Franklin’s lecture displayed models of moral leadership that reflect both King’s vision and address the current challenges to racial justice in the United States.

“Dr. Franklin represents a powerful model of public theology, as did the ‘die-in’ organized by Candler students in early December 2014,” Love wrote.

Candler’s Student Body President the Rev. Sam White wrote in an email to the Wheel that he felt Franklin’s message was timely.

“It was great to hear someone speak about moral leadership at a time when it is needed in the wake of national movements, die-ins and protests,” White wrote.

“Dr. Franklin also offered substantive ways to move forward as a community … [his] insight and wisdom was exactly what Candler and Emory needed.”

– By Annie McGrew, Asst. News Editor