In the early 1970s, Shirley Franklin started to see a shift in the leadership of Atlanta. Youthful, African American leaders like Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young were gaining national attention and the city was changing.
As a child growing up in Philadelphia, Franklin never really dreamed of running for office herself, though lively conversations around the family dinner table helped spark her interest in policy and politics.
“There was lots of discussion about politics,” Franklin said about her family’s dinners. “My father and grandfather were both Republicans — they would say ‘Lincoln Republicans.’ My mother and grandmother were Democrats. So every Sunday dinner was a debate.”
This early exposure to discussions and ideas on both sides of the aisle served her well later in life.
“I came to understand that good people can be involved in politics and in the debate of public policy and issues regardless of party,” she said, noting that as a teenager she was particularly excited about the 1960 presidential run of John F. Kennedy, especially because of his youthful energy.
Years later, she herself would be the leader of the city of Atlanta, jumpstarting initiatives that would improve the city’s approximately 2,000 miles of sewer lines, launching the Atlanta BeltLine, and implementing ethics reform — all the while inspiring countless Atlanta residents as the first woman to be mayor.
At age 17, Franklin enrolled at Howard University in 1963, and began meeting individuals who were actively engaged in the civil rights movement, including Stokely Carmichael, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who later adopted the name Kwame Ture, and Cleveland Sellers, who later became a prominent educator and civil rights activist. At Howard, students would hold sessions for those interested in the political atmosphere of the time, including updates on voter registration efforts and political organizations in the South.
“It was a very exciting time to be there and to hear directly from them the kind of experiences they were having,” she said.
She noted that alongside her mother and other family members, she attended the March on Washington in August 1963, when some 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to draw attention to the continued challenges and inequalities faced by African Americans.
“People came from all over the country to march,” she said. “It was an integrated crowd. We stayed the whole day. I was very excited that I was going to hear from John Lewis, who was younger and even more engaging of young people, and also had the honor to be there when Dr. King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. So, all of that is memorable to me. It was not the first march I had been in, but it’s certainly a highlight of my life.”
At Howard, her studies centered on anthropology, psychology, and African studies. This academic background helped forge an interest in cultural diversity, how society transmits information and ideologies, and how individuals interact and behave.
Before college, Franklin said certain problems of the world seemed insurmountable, but through her experiences at Howard, she was greatly inspired by how young people were mobilizing and changing history.
After graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, she began teaching at Talladega College in Alabama, and later moved to Atlanta, noting her affinity for larger cities and seeing the success of Jackson and the signals that Young would run for Congress.
“I was immediately taken by how exciting that would be,” Franklin said about the possibility of electing Young. “I was involved with that campaign almost full-time for months.”
In watching Young, she learned that there’s tremendous value in officials being open to dialogue and discussion without seeking fault.
“Let’s not worry about how it got this way. Let’s worry about how we can fix it,” she said. “I think you have to listen. You have to bring humility, and you have to bring your best game.”
She noted that prior to running for office, her experience was behind the scenes in support roles, but that she was inspired by leaders such as Margie Pitts Hames, an Atlanta civil rights lawyer, Elaine Alexander, who served as Executive Director of Leadership Atlanta from 1978–1992, Jondelle Johnson, former Executive Director of the NAACP Atlanta Branch, Rita Samuels, who played an active role in Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and administration, and Nancy Boxill, who served on Fulton County Board of Commissioners from 1987–2010.
“These were all people who were instrumental in me learning more and more and more, not just about politics, but public policy and public service,” Franklin said.
Being active in the city and being surrounded by civic leaders, she understood that success in government and policy typically depends on multiple factors.
“It’s easy to make a difference if you understand that you’re there as a public servant, and that it’s hard, because there are rules and regulations, so, you can’t always operate outside of the rules and regulations, but you can always be civil, you can always be honest, you can always be as knowledgeable as possible, you can always be fair, and you can see opportunities to kind of advance some of the issues of fairness and justice.”
She noted that in politics — and in life — she largely would rather take on something hard than easy.
“Some people say we want to take the low-hanging fruit,” she said. “I think that in elected office and in appointed office, I was always interested in doing the hard things.”
She added that such a sensibility was shaped, in part, by her upbringing in Philadelphia and learning about the values and traditions of the Quakers, which include nonviolence, equality, and fairness.
“One of the things we were taught — very explicitly — is that women were smart enough and capable enough to do anything that they wanted to do,” she said. “Combine that with going to church at an African Episcopal Church, founded by Absalom Jones, who was one of the great faith leaders of the 18th to 19th century, and it was instilled in me that it was okay to stand up, and if we banded together, if we supported each other, and we were unafraid, then we could do great things.”
She noted that there are similar examples across the country and that many people have shared values and influences of working together and building community. During her time at City Hall, she said she was especially proud of seeing those ideas put into practice and witnessing the hard work of City’s employees daily.
“From public works to the police department to the firefighters to watershed to the law department, and planning, I’m proud that they cared enough about the community and our city that they would dedicate their careers to public service in one way or another.”
Current Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said his predecessor was there for him from the very beginning.
“When I was 16 years old, I told her that I wanted to be mayor of Atlanta one day, and she encouraged me to do so and follow my dreams,” Dickens said. “Throughout the whole process of being a candidate for City Council, to being a candidate for mayor, she was right there, step for step with me, side by side.”
As the first woman to serve as mayor of Atlanta, Dickens said Franklin clearly serves as an inspiration to many.
“I know my daughter looks up to her. I’ve said this before that whenever we’re around each other, Mayor Franklin and I, and my daughter is around, somehow my daughter is always near her, talking to her, collecting wisdom, and they found themselves as fast friends from the beginning,” he said.
Council President Doug Shipman pointed to several achievements of Mayor Franklin during her administration.
“She pushed very hard for ethics. She managed through the onset of the ‘Great Recession’ in 2008 and navigated the City’s finances through that, and really making some tough decisions,” Shipman said. “Of course, leading the effort for the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the King papers — really shepherding the BeltLine and acquiring property along the BeltLine to make it possible, which at the time was very controversial because the BeltLine seemed like it was a long way away, but there’s no question that her collaboration with then-Council President Cathy Woolard was instrumental in the BeltLine coming to life.”
District 11 Council member Marci Collier Overstreet said Franklin’s straightforwardness is always helpful when they interact.
“I look at Shirley Franklin as a leader. She is so accessible and gives you the truth and nothing but the truth. I appreciate her for just how honest she is about everything,” Overstreet said. “She just doesn’t give you the answer. She will give you the reasons why. She has that knowledge from so many experiences that she’s done, and she’s got yearning still to be a part of the solution. That’s who she is.”
Ingrid Saunders Jones, former chair of The Coca-Cola Foundation, said Franklin’s impact in Atlanta goes beyond her time as mayor.
“Mayor Franklin had worked in city government for many years before she became mayor. She worked for Maynard Jackson. She worked for Andy Young. She then left and worked for the Olympics and then she became the mayor of the city of Atlanta. So, you have to look at her whole body of work,” Jones said. “One of the things that I know about her is that she has great vision, and she is real clear that what you do today builds the future for tomorrow.”
Jones pointed to Franklin’s initiatives to improve the City of Atlanta’s operating management, ethics reform, and her $5 billion in airport and water infrastructure improvements among the former mayor’s accomplishments.
“She was fearless and unafraid to tackle the hard things that made for a better future for the city of Atlanta,” she said, noting Franklin was a recipient of the 2005 Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Carol Naughton, Chief Executive Officer of Purpose Built Communities, noted that Mayor Franklin’s legacy will be deep and multi-faceted and that she should be remembered for making the city more equitable and creating opportunities for more in Atlanta.
“I’m really so moved and inspired by Shirley’s work around economic mobility — that’s what I will think about her first,” Naughton said. “She speaks her heart and her mind, and you always know where you stand with Shirley, and that’s a beautiful thing to have in anybody, but particularly in a political and civic leader.”
By Michael Ulmer
Atlanta City Council Office of Communications