C. L. Franklin
The Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin (January 22, 1915 – July 27, 1984), better known as C. L. Franklin, was a highly influential African-American Baptist preacher and civil rights activist. He was also the father of the legendary singer Aretha Franklin.
Born in rural Mississippi, Franklin was called to the ministry when he was 16 and pastored several churches in the South before moving to Buffalo, New York, and then Detroit, where he founded the New Bethel Baptist Church. A brilliant and spiritually gifted orator, his sermons were often recorded and published as successful LP records to a nationwide audience. He also toured widely and was influential in the gospel music scene, and his training of his daughter Aretha Franklin as a gospel singer was instrumental in her later success.
A friend and associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, Franklin led a civil rights march in Detroit in 1963 and was a member of the executive committee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He continued preaching and recording in the 1970s until he was severely wounded by a gunshot after thieves broke into his home in 1979. He remained comatose the rest of his life.
Numerous gospel stars, preachers, and civil rights leaders cite Franklin as a major influence, and he is considered the most imitated black preacher in history.
Franklin was born and raised in Sunflower County, Mississippi near Indianola. His mother's name was Willie Ann Pitman. His grandfather, who had been a slave, was a preacher named Elijah J. Pitman. His father left the family shortly after returning from WWI, and C.L. took the last name of his adopted father after his mother remarried. He grew up in poverty and later recalled his mother crying because she had no money to buy toys for her children at Christmas. He attended school in Doddsville, where the schools for black children were decidedly inferior, usually relegated to one room in a church, and taught by teachers without even a high school degree. On the way to school, he was often victimized by pranks and racial taunts by white children.
At home, "my family didn't do much except to farm and go to church," he said. In his spare time, Franklin listened to records by blues singers Blind Lemon Jefferson and Roosevelt Sykes. He did not share the attitude of some church folk that the blues was "devil music."
Called to the ministry
Franklin was baptized at the age of ten and showed a precocious talent as a preacher. At just 16, he reported his calling to preach to his mother after having a vision the previous night in which he heard a voice that said "Go and preach the gospel to all the nations." He was soon ordained as a minister and became the associate pastor of St. Peter's Rock Baptist Church in Cleveland, Mississippi.
He later pastored a church in Clarksdale and then moved to Greenville, where he was able to study theology in a fundamentalist seminary run by the National Baptist Convention. He worked as an itinerant preacher before settling in Memphis, Tennessee, where he studied at LeMoyne College. At this point, he began to challenge his own fundamentalist views as he was exposed to more contemporary approaches to biblical scholarship. He described the transition as being one from an "evangelical" approach to a more "historical" one. He also began to adopt the attitude that in preaching, his spiritual gifts must be balanced by intellectual discipline, believing that the emotional-style preaching then prevalent in black churches produced only short-term results in the congregation. In Memphis, Franklin had his first radio broadcasts of his weekly sermons from the New Salem Church he pastored there.
Franklin married his first wife, Alene Gaines, on October 16, 1934. The marriage ended by 1936, although the exact time and form of dissolution is unknown. On June 3, 1936, he married Barbara Siggers Franklin, a church pianist, and they had four children: Erma, Cecil, Aretha, and Carolyn. Barbara brought a son, Vaughn, from a previous relationship to the marriage, whom C.L. adopted.
After three years in Memphis, Franklin moved to Buffalo, New York to serve as pastor of the Greater Friendship Baptist Church. In 1946, he moved to Detroit, where he founded the New Bethel Baptist Church. In 1948, C.L. and Barbara separated, with Barbara taking Vaughn to Buffalo, New York, leaving C.L. with the couple's four other children. Barbara made trips back to Detroit to visit her children until her death from heart trouble in 1952.
Theologically, his preaching was influenced by the Social Gospel, and he would put this theology into practice at New Bethel, where Franklin started a food ministry, provided financial and legal help for the homeless, and conducted a prison ministry. His theology was an optimistic one, having always sensed that God was not a condemning God, but a loving Father who wanted to help his people. He rejected the doctrine of predestination on the grounds that it made God responsible for the world's worst tragedies, even applying this to the crucifixion, which he could not believe was God's original intent in sending Jesus.
A gifted and charismatic preacher, Franklin's fame grew throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and he preached throughout the country. His sermons would characteristically build slowly from their opening sections, punctuated by musical phrasing of key words like "Lord" and "Jesus." His orations reached a climax near the end in which he engaged in "whooping" and deep breathing, which in African-American church tradition signals the presence of the Holy Spirit. Unlike most other black preachers, however, Franklin remained intellectually disciplined at these moments, using moments of climactic emotionalism to summarize what he had taught previously and drive home key points.
Known as the man with the "Million Dollar Voice," Franklin was one of the first ministers to place his sermons on records, which continued into the 1970s and brought him national fame among black Christians. He would eventually record 76 albums of gospel songs and sermons, and his sermons were also broadcast via radio on Sundays.
Among his most famous recorded sermons were "The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest" and "Dry Bones in the Valley." These and others of his recorded messages were listened to many times by his nationwide audience, making him one of the most widely heard and effective preachers in American history up to that time.
In addition to being a gifted preacher, Franklin was known for his fine singing voice and became highly influential in gospel music circles. He also greatly encouraged his daughter Aretha's music talent, and by the late-1950s took her with him on speaking tours and musical engagements.
He was also known for his close collaborations with gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, two of gospel music's greatest voices. Ward and her singing groups frequently toured with Franklin, and he and Ward reportedly had a long-term romantic relationship. Ward and Jackson also greatly encouraged Aretha, who credits their mentoring and frequent visits to the Franklin home as great influences. Even blues singer B.B. King attended Franklin's church when in Detroit, and Franklin presided at his marriage.
In 1961, the growing New Bethel Baptist Church moved to a converted movie theater with a seating capacity of up to 3000. During the Civil Rights Movement, Franklin was a friend and ally of Martin Luther King, Jr., who usually attended Franklin's church when visiting Detroit. In 1963, Franklin helped organize a march to end racial discrimination in Detroit which Franklin and King led together. He was also actively involved in the Urban League and NAACP, and served on the executive board of the Southern Christian Leadership Council.
In 1969, Franklin rented his church to members of the black militant group known as the Republic of New Africa, after they assured him they had no firearms. However, a showdown with police soon resulted, in which a police officer was killed and another wounded.
Franklin continued preaching and recording through the 1970s, and in the late 1970s he recorded his life story for interviewer Jeff Todd Titon, who published an edited version in a collection of Franklin's sermons titled Give Me This Mountain.
In June 1979, a group of three men and two women broke into Franklin's home, apparently intent on theft. Franklin reportedly shot at the intruders, and they returned fire, hitting him in the groin and the knee, and then making their escape. Medics took him to Henry Ford Hospital where he was admitted in critical condition. He would remain in a comatose condition for the rest of his life. Two of the perpetrators received a sentence of 25-50 years after pleading guilty to assault with intent to murder, the others receiving lesser sentences, with one given immunity to testify against the others.
Franklin's children refused for years to admit him to a nursing home, spending $2500 a week on medical expenses for him. After five years, they finally placed him in the New Light Nursing Home, where he died after only four days, on July 27, 1984.
His funeral at the New Bethel Baptist Church was attended by many of his fellow preachers and members of his congregation, as well as noted politicians, entertainers, and journalists. Nearly 6000 people listened to the funeral service outside the church on loudspeakers.
Despite his many personal accomplishments, C.L. Franklin's greatest legacy is certainly his daughter, Aretha Franklin, considered by many to be the greatest soul singer of all time. As a girl, Aretha accompanied C.L. on preaching tours throughout the United States, and because of her father's fame as a preacher, Aretha's talents as a gospel singer gained national attention. Her first album was the 1956 The Gospel Soul of Aretha Franklin. Her father also facilitated her transition to the R & B market, where she eventually became a national star.
Many gospel singers and preachers consider Franklin their mentor or as a major influence. In the Civil Rights Movement, he was known as "the Rabbi" because of his brilliance as a teacher and preacher. The Reverend Jesse Jackson called him a "prophet," and declared him to be "the most imitated soul preacher in history."
Detroit's Linwood Street was renamed as C. L. Franklin Boulevard by its then-mayor, Coleman A. Young. A park, located 2 blocks from Franklin's home was renamed "C. L. Franklin Park."
- Franklin, C.L., and Jeff Todd Titon. Give Me This Mountain: Life History and Selected Sermons. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. ISBN 9780252060878.
- Royster-Ward, Willa. How I Got Over: Clara Ward and the World-Famous Ward Singers. Temple University Press, 1997. ISBN 1566394902.
- Salvatore, Nick. Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. ISBN 0316160377.
- Schwerin, Jules. Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel. Oxford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0195090500.
All links retrieved April 6, 2021.
- Reverend C.L. Franklin Discogs
- Interview with Nick Salvatore including audio examples of Franklin's preaching
- Rev. C.L. Franklin Malaco Music Group
- The Man with the Million Dollar Voice PBS: The Black Church
- Rev C. L. Franklin Find A Grave
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