Photographed for Delta Sky by Harold Daniels.
Shirley Franklin, 68, was the first female and African-American mayor of a major Southern city. After being mayor of Atlanta for two terms, she left office in 2010 and is now a visiting professor of ethics and political values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
TELL ME ABOUT SEEING DR. KING IN PERSON. “I was at the march on Washington. I was a college freshman, 18 years old, with my mother and my sisters and my cousins. It was my intention to go with a group of college friends, but my mother called to say she was coming with our church friends and she thought we should go as a family. I have a vivid memory of that day. It was not my first march, but it stands out. Like everyone else in the crowd, I was riveted. I wanted to be like Dr. King. I wanted to be a part of the movement that made America better. With experiences like that, you recall them and they help to define your perspective some 50 years later. It was one of the most significant days of my life.”
WHAT ELSE DO YOU REMEMBER? “In those days, there were no concession stands; you took sandwiches with you. We were there all day—got up very early and stayed until the very end. I was surprised by the integration, the number of people from all backgrounds, all ethnicities and ages. It was a joyous and celebratory atmosphere. We tend to remember those things that made us feel good.”
AND THE DREAM SPEECH? “When he talked about the red hills, about his children, little black children and little white children holding hands and how freedom would ring from all over America, he was very illustrative in his description of that. When he finished his prepared remarks and began improvising, that’s what I most remember. What’s significant to me today, 50 years later, is that the speech is equally inspiring. I still draw not just inspiration, but I can be provoked to think about what role I play in creating a community that has the kinds of harmony and commitment to justice that he describes.”
SO IT MADE YOU WANT TO ENTER POLITICS? “I was interested in politics, but I had no intention to run for office until I was 55. I wanted to be among the number who were making a significant and substantive change in the lives of people I considered less fortunate than myself. The speech reinforced all of those feelings. I had grown up in Philadelphia in the ’40s and ’50s, talking about the value of social or political action to improve things.”
A PROMISED LAND. “Yes. I think about the ‘Mountaintop’ speech he gave just before his assassination. He said, ‘I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!’ That’s a very bold statement. What made him so audacious to say, It’s not just me, but it’s also you? If he had that much confidence in me, not knowing me, then what can I do? Here is this celebrated man recognized around the world for his leadership, compassion, intelligence, oratory, but he says that the moment did not require him to be successful. As a young person, I didn’t think I could make a particularly significant contribution. But he had that clear sense that people from all walks of life could. That’s empowering.”
WHAT MIGHT DR. KING THINK OF AMERICA TODAY? “I don’t know. He would see the success of the women’s movement, probably. He would see the success of the political shift in this country. He would see the success of several presidents from the South and President Obama. But he would also challenge us and say that there are still far too many people living in abject poverty. Too many children not fed. Too many wars. He’d be worried we weren’t using diplomacy to its fullest extent around the world. But the fact that he was as hopeful as he was in the face of so much despair tells me that he would be optimistic today.”
DO YOU THINK ABOUT HIM OFTEN? “Absolutely. Especially when I was in public office. People look to Atlanta and Georgia and understand that this is where he was reared, educated and led much of the movement from. So the challenge to those of us who live here today is be sure that we continue that work.”
WHAT PART OF HIS LEGACY IS MOST IMPORTANT? “His optimism and his determination. And the value of humility. Even in great, powerful people.”
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