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To contribute to the John P. Franklin Sr. Scholarship Fund, contact the Community Fund of Greater Chattanooga.

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John Franklin Sr., former vice mayor and the first elected black official in Chattanooga, listens as Dr. Clark White talks during a tour held by the Chattanooga History Museum down M.L. King Boulevard on Tuesday.
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David Cook

Late one night many, many years ago, the telephone rang inside the home of John and Eva Jim Franklin.

It would become one of the most important phone calls in the history of Hamilton County.

"It was a midnight call," said the Rev. Paul McDaniel. "One that changed his life and the life of this city."

It was the early '70s. Jim Crow, dead legally, was still alive in many ways; never had a black man or woman been elected in Chattanooga.

That's why the Franklin phone was ringing.

McDaniel, on behalf of other African-American community leaders, was calling. History was calling. God was calling.

Would John Franklin run for office?

"We made a decision one night that John Franklin should be the man," said McDaniel, the legendary retired pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church. "This county needed Johnny Franklin."

Months later, Franklin became the first African-American to hold public office in Chattanooga, elected to the then-City Commission in 1971.

"I was in the audience when he won his first commission seat," said retiring state Rep. Joanne Favors. "The thunderous applause. I will never forget it."

After a lifetime of public service, Franklin died 11 days ago at the age of 96.

Friday morning, a formal funeral Mass was held at Christ Episcopal Church.

But Thursday night, inside a packed Olivet Baptist Church, with leaders from McDaniel to Favors and many others, there was a public celebration of his life.

"He was ours," said Olivet pastor Kevin Adams.

A Howard High graduate who later fought for the U.S. Army in World War II, Franklin returned to Chattanooga to become a coach and teacher at Orchard Knob Junior High. (His student Ralph Cothran would later become the city's first black police chief.)

He became the head of the physical education program of the city schools.

A principal at Davenport School and Alton Park Junior High.

Elected commissioner of education and health.

Vice mayor.

Chairman of the city school board.

A nationally known funeral home director.

A civil rights fighter whose legal struggle overturned a biased system of local government. (Goodbye, City Commission and non-district, citywide voting.)

"There is no family in the African American community that has not been positively impacted by Commissioner Franklin," Favors said. "He has been a role model for five generations in this community."

For more than two hours Thursday night, among soloists and organists — my Lord, thank you, Jeff Seay — leader after leader took the stage, telling stories, tributes, jokes, crying and laughing among standing, hands-high applause.

"I don't accept any more public speaking invitations since my stroke," said retired Judge Walter Williams, his words slurred and struggling. "But I had to do it for Johnny."

The room exploded into applause.

"All of us who have been elected to office find our way through Johnny Franklin," he said.

Franklin's life embodied the 20th century nonviolent civil rights struggle.

He was born in 1922, just decades after the end of American slavery. He fought in World War II, yet came home to legal segregation. Earned multiple college degrees before Brown v. Board of Education. Became teacher and principal during integration, and later witnessed the first black man become a U.S. president.

His was a life of loving, committed integration.

"John Franklin was the beatitudes," said former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp.

While in office, Wamp led efforts to rename the Great Hall — the largest room in the Capitol Building — to Emancipation Hall, in honor of the enslaved black men and women who helped build Washington.

"Why did I do that as a white guy?" Wamp asked, choking through tears as the room stood in applause. "Because I knew John Franklin."

Before he sat down, Wamp added: "We need to be more like him and less like us."

"Mr. Franklin always seemed to know the righteousness of his cause was his weapon," said Mayor Andy Berke. "The way he would look at you and talk to you and reason with you would win the day."

Think of the burden placed on his shoulders as the very first elected black man in Chattanooga.

Think of the way he shouldered that burden — the grace and courage, the golden line of staying true to principles while also putting anxious and racist whites at ease — in order to open once-closed doors for so many others to follow.

"He was your father," proclaimed former City Councilman Moses Freeman, looking at Franklin's children Cheryl and Duke in the first pews. "But he was our foster father."

Nearby, the body of John Franklin — his closed eyes having found his prize at last — rested in the open casket, a folded American flag at his head.

"Surely Johnny Franklin was a man for our time," Freeman said. "Thank God for Johnny Franklin."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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