Updated at 10:42 p.m. on Thursday, June 21, 2018. CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified John Franklin Sr. as John Franklin Jr.
Pioneering Chattanooga political figure John P. Franklin Sr. died Thursday at age 96.
A longtime educator, principal and city school board member, Franklin made history in 1971 by becoming the only African-American to be elected in a citywide vote to the old Chattanooga City Commission.
Then, years later, he had to prove in federal court he was the exception to the longstanding fact that citywide voting meant black residents had little chance to send representatives of their choosing to the halls of power in Chattanooga.
One of the things that came out in that lawsuit, Brown v. Chattanooga, was that when he was elected, the mayor asked Franklin — and only Franklin — to move his office to the basement so the commission's assembly room could expand.
That lawsuit ended with a judge tossing out the city commission system and ordering the current council form of government, in which district elections allow minorities a fairer chance at representation. When the first council was elected in 1990, it comprised five whites and four blacks.
The example Franklin set both professionally and personally was a model for those around him and the generations who came afterward, friends and colleagues said.
"He paved the way for African-Americans to get into the mainstream in Chattanooga, civicly and socially," then-city councilman and longtime friend Moses Freeman said in 2014 when Franklin was awarded the History Maker award by the Chattanooga History Center.
Former Chattanooga mayor Ron Littlefield served on the old city commission with Franklin, who was education commissioner and was named vice mayor for four of his five terms and didn't seek election to the new council.
"Chattanooga's relatively quiet transition through the tumultuous era of civil rights toward becoming a more open and inclusive community was made possible by the stately presence, wise guidance and steady hand of John Franklin Sr.," Littlefield said via email Thursday.
"It was my privilege to serve with him on the last City Commission as we turned the page and ushered in the more representative City Council. He was a quiet and heroic leader through difficult times. The modern city that we enjoy today owes him a great debt."
Current Mayor Andy Berke called Franklin "a trailblazer in the Chattanooga community."
"He was an incredible coach, teacher and leader. He's made a lasting impact on this City and will be deeply missed," Berke said in a statement.
The Chattanooga native graduated from Howard High School, served in the Army during World War II and came home to join the family business, Franklin Funeral Home.
He went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in physical education and education and health, and was a teacher and principal in Chattanooga schools, as well as a 20-year member and chairman of the city school board. He was president of the Tennessee School Boards Association and was the first black president of the Tennessee Municipal League.
State Rep. JoAnne Favors said Franklin paved the way for her own political career. She was the first black woman to win a seat on the Hamilton County Commission, and is now retiring after 14 years in the Tennessee General Assembly.
"He was a good friend of my family, and always somebody we all admired. He was always encouraging me to seek public office and supported me in every office that I sought."
Franklin strongly promoted education and urged young African-Americans to take advantage as new college opportunities opened up, she said.
"He provided excellent advice, and he was just such a dignified person. He was a sharp dresser, very mild-mannered and just a role model for all of us. He was truly a leader," Favors said.
Yusuf Hakeem, also a former city councilman, said Franklin was his principal at Alton Park Junior High and later his colleague on the board of education.
"He has been a friend, a mentor," Hakeem said. "His philosophy was 'It's not about you as an individual, it's about society as a whole.' and 'It's not about rhetoric, it's about results.'"
Funeral arrangements will be announced by Franklin Funeral Home.