On April 26, John P. Franklin Sr. will celebrate his 96th birthday. It will be a quiet celebration at his Chattanooga home with his family and friends. The conversation might center on accolades won over the years, including the Kappa Foundation's Pioneer Leaders Award in 2011 and the Distinguished Service Award from the Downtown Chattanooga Kiwanis Club in 2015. Eventually the conversation will turn — as it always does — to several critical months during the "civil rights" era of our country when a vigorous and determined Johnny Franklin — with visionary supporters — charted a courageous course in his home city.
In 1971, friends and associates from the black community came to this school principal and funeral home owner/director and his devoted wife, Eva Jim Mann Franklin, to say that if there were ever going to be a chance for a black citizen to be elected to the Chattanooga City Commission in a city-wide election, this was the year and that person would be John P. Franklin. He had not sought this role, was not sure he wanted it, and was not certain he or any black citizen could win the seat for Commissioner of Education and Health. But with the encouragement and support of the black community and with his willingness to step out to garner the trust and the votes of the white community, Franklin made his decision.
It was with some surprise that John Franklin won that election against an older, seasoned and respected white incumbent. In the end, it seemed that the critical factor for success was neither the amount of campaign funds for each candidate nor any dissatisfaction with the former commissioner. Rather it was the consensus from the majority of the Chattanooga community who voted that, indeed, it was time for a black elected commissioner, and this intelligent, honest, forthright black educator and businessman — above all, a true gentleman — was the perfect person for the job. Many times black and white citizens voiced the opinion: "I respect and trust John Franklin." Truly, it was the man himself who took this election over the top.
Two examples of John Franklin's character, one previous to the election and one afterwards, speak volumes to his integrity, his courage and the gentleman he is. At one point during this reasonably mild campaign, with both sides sticking to positive public statements, an unusually negative comment against Franklin appeared in the newspaper. Regardless of the fact that there was not a direct connection to the other candidate, his election committee felt this statement should be answered quickly with an equal response. After a day of writing and editing, and with only an hour before printing and publication of the next day's newspaper, the committee took the response to the candidate for his approval. His reaction was immediate and definitive: "We're not going to try to win an election this way." The committee was duly educated and never considered another negative response. John Franklin was going to win this election on his merits — or not at all.
Following his winning election, Franklin kept his campaign promise to immediately establish 11 town hall meetings throughout the city. The dates and places were published, and he began making the rounds to speak and listen on the 11 nights within 10 weeks' time. Various members of his committee had promised to go with him to each meeting.
As the commissioner planned for his schedule, he realized that the last meeting would take him into an area widely recognized for its KKK leanings. However, because of family duties, none of his supporting committee could attend that meeting. After much pleading on the part of his supporters to change the date so that all his campaign committee could be there in what might be a tense, even dangerous, situation, Franklin made his statement. "These are my constituents. We have announced I'm going. I'm going." The next day, the commissioner said that of all his 11 Town Hall meetings, "This was the best." Many participants said to him: "We know you'll be good for us and this city: You had the courage to come here alone."
Commissioner John Franklin would be elected four more times. During his third term, by the vote of his commission colleagues, he would become the first black vice mayor of the city of Chattanooga. John Franklin: an honest voice and a true gentleman.
Franklin McCallie is a retired educator and a member of the original committee to elect John Franklin Commissioner of Education & Health. For more, visit Chattahistorical.org.