The New York Times
Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of Americaby Nick Salvatore
A prizewinning historian pens this biography of C.L. Franklin, the greatest African-American preacher of his generation, father of Aretha, and civil rights pioneer.See more details below
A prizewinning historian pens this biography of C.L. Franklin, the greatest African-American preacher of his generation, father of Aretha, and civil rights pioneer.
The New York Times
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Singing in A Strange Land
By Nick Salvatore
Little, BrownCopyright © 2005 Nick Salvatore
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA DEEP LONGING
"Fa-a-ther," intoned the young teenage soloist from the choir stand at St. Peter's Rock Baptist Church one Sunday morning in the late 1920s. "Faa-ther, I Stretch My Hands to Thee." As he sang of the hope that all might yet hear God's "quickening voice and taste [his] pardn'ing grace," the congregation in the small wooden church responded fervently. As Rachel Franklin watched her son and oldest child that morning, a mother's ordinary pride might easily have merged with a growing belief that her boy had been blessed with a special gift. Indeed, Rachel already sensed that her son might well be a messenger of the Lord who would, in time, transform lives. Someday, when people thought of Cleveland, Mississippi, deep in the Delta, they would think first of this young boy with a voice like few others.
Rachel Franklin was a Pittman, a family with a long history in the Mississippi Delta. Her parents, Elijah J. and Willie Ann Pittman, were both born slaves on cotton plantations. Following freedom, the couple worked the land and raised four children.
It was "directly after" slavery that Elijah Pittman accepted his call to preach the gospel. While no one church had the resources to support him, he preached as a "special pastor" from church to church evenas he worked the land, raising cotton for white plantation owners. Rachel was born on March 15, 1897, in Sunflower County, Mississippi, nearby the county seat, at Indianola. At least one of her siblings, her brother, Robert, was older. As a child her family moved to Shaw, in neighboring Bolivar County, and they may have moved back to Sunflower County at a later time. Like many black agricultural workers in the state, the Pittmans would migrate on occasion to adjacent plantations in search of marginal-but, to them, significant-improvements in their working conditions.
Decades later, Rachel recalled little of the daily atmosphere of her early years in Mississippi but the family's religious intensity. "We always have," she commented, "you know, been a Christian family." Whether all of her siblings shared Rachel's commitment is unknown, but her faith deepened through teen years filled with emotional strain, love, and loss. Before she completed her seventeenth year, both of her parents had passed, and she had fallen in love, married, and become a mother. A few short years later, she lost her husband as well. The testing deepened her faith.
Willie Walker, a young Delta man, had met and married Rachel Pittman about 1914. Who his people were, when he was born, where he was raised, the contours of his personality-all remain a mystery. At this distance, it is difficult to have even the barest hint of Walker. He likely courted Rachel while she lived with kin in rural Sunflower County, and theirs was possibly a common-law marriage, as were many among Mississippi blacks at that time. On January 22, 1915, in a farmhouse in the hamlet of Sunflower, just outside Indianola, Rachel delivered her first child, a son the couple named Clarence LaVaughn. She carried her baby with her into the fields as she picked cotton under the intense Mississippi sun.
It is hard to imagine a more hostile environment for a black child to be born into than white-dominated Mississippi during this era. Schools, churches, railroads, hotels, and that then-new phenomenon, the picture show, were all segregated. But those were only the most obvious signs of a racist world. Never would a black child witness whites addressing his older relatives as Mr. or Mrs., regardless of their age or status, and rarely would that child hear his kin use anything but formal titles when addressing whites, no matter how young. Retail stores were not segregated, for the only thing white merchants feared more than taking money touched by "inferior" black hands was to see that same money in the hands of a black mercantile class. But blacks had to wait for service until all whites had been accommodated. On the street, a similar racial etiquette prevailed. Black men were expected to doff their caps to whites; black men and women to step into the street to allow whites to pass. Never would a black adult presume to walk through the front door of a white restaurant or a white private home. The term nigger hung in the air, as integral to daily life as the dense humidity of a Mississippi summer day, its purpose to declare irrevocably the narrowed place allowed blacks in public life. Given this, that black adults could neither vote nor serve on juries seemed redundant.
And then there was the violence. In the seventeen counties that comprise the Mississippi Delta, some of the richest alluvial land in all the world, whites lynched a black American more than twice a year between 1900 and 1930, decades that frame the formative years of both Rachel and her son. The "charges" varied. Blacks were accused of "ogling" a white woman, of "sassing" whites, of being "uppity." To forget one's assigned place in this constrained world could result in swift, extralegal punishment, a fact not lost on black parents. A trip to town on Saturday afternoon, anticipated as a break from the exhausting regularity of farm work, brought its own tensions as parents had to train (often harshly, if they would prevent worse harm) their growing children in the cruel realities of that racial code.
This system, self-consciously wrought by generations of Mississippi whites, denied most black residents all civic and political rights, funneled them into a workforce as compliant as the patterns of oppression could achieve, and considered blacks as other than human. The official rationale obscured a far more troubling prospect. In the period following the Civil War, J. C. Crittendon, a Bolivar County black, not only joined with other black men in voting and serving on the county jury, but he was actually elected a county supervisor. In that capacity, he oversaw the construction of the new county courthouse in the county seat at Cleveland in 1872. But Mississippi whites could not accept the possibility of a biracial political culture, and through violence, intimidation, and murder over decades, they worked to return blacks to their "proper" place. In this, they largely succeeded. By the time of Clarence's birth, no blacks had served on juries in Bolivar County for years, and J. C. Crittendon, now a porter, mopped the floors of the very courthouse he once voted to create.
That the racism took its toll on individuals is evident. As the native Mississippian (he was born near Natchez in 1908) and writer Richard Wright recalled, by age ten he had already experienced the murder of two adult male kin by whites: "A dread of white people now came to live permanently in my feelings and imagination.... Nothing changed the totality of my personality so much as this pressure of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites." Yet this hatred, which at times seemed to deplete the very oxygen of black Mississippians seeking survival on the wide, flat expanse of the Delta's cotton fields, was not the only reality.
The church, the major black social institution independent enough from white control to nurture children such as Clarence Franklin, provided one such alternative. Egos badly bruised by the week's ugliness could be salved, "niggers" could assume the dignity of a deacon or a mother of the church, and a potent faith that stressed how all of God's children were equally worthy of redemption, both here in Egypt-land and in the afterlife, embraced. Since the days of slavery, the church was also a center of black social life, with picnics, socials, and a pattern of intense Sunday services, revivals, and prayer meetings. Then, too, there were the juke joints or "jook houses," as McKinley Morganfield called them. Born in the Delta the same year as Clarence and, in later years, better known as the blues guitarist and singer Muddy Waters, Morganfield remembered that "everybody went to those places" on Saturday night to dance, listen to the music, and socialize. The following morning found many of the revelers in church as well.
The black family also provided a psychological alternative to racism's searing personal hurts. Here titles of respect and authority whites denied them could be recognized; here adults nurtured children, socialized them, and encouraged them; here the intertwined and thus bittersweet lessons in parental love and racial survival came to be appreciated. While contemporary observers noted that a significant portion (approximately 25 percent in one case) of black families surveyed had single women leading them- and blues songs frequently extolled the man who rambled, leaving home and family in search of personal independence and human dignity-black family life was always more complex. Many more men remained with their families than left, and the presence of other kin, blood as well as fictive, provided a context that nurtured black children despite the oppressive circumstances that surrounded them.
In the summer of 1916, Rachel gave birth to a second child, a daughter named Louise. Shortly thereafter, following America's entry into World War I in April 1917, Willie Walker entered the army. As far as is known, Rachel remained outside of Indianola, caring for her babies and working the land. She lived close by, if not with, her sister, and both sets of children called her Aunt Rachel. Walker was one of many Mississippi black men drafted (black men accounted for 52 percent of the state's draftees and 56 percent of its actual inductees), and he may have ended up in a service unit, as many black soldiers did. Family lore had him in Paris during the war. How these experiences changed him is lost, but it would not be far-fetched to imagine that in France, if not in the segregated U.S. army, Walker discovered a world where Mississippi's racial codes need not dominate every waking moment. He might have glimpsed, as other African American soldiers did as well, the possibilities of a personal freedom previously unimaginable. If so, how jarring the reentry into Mississippi's reality. The prospect of black soldiers and their kin claiming the rights of citizenship as a consequence of their service infuriated white Mississippians into a panic of violence. Richard Wright, who had largely ignored the war, found that he responded "emotionally to every hint, whisper, word, inflection, news, gossip, and rumor regarding conflicts between the races" as the conflict ended. The reception returning black soldiers encountered was intended to jolt them back into their place. As one Delta veteran explained, his unit had decent treatment until they arrived at their mustering-out base in Mississippi. There they were held, incommunicado, without food, "and forced to break rocks as if we had been sentenced to hard labor until we all banded together, sat down, and went on strike." The courage of that action evoked from white superiors a blunt warning. "We were told by the white officers," Chalmers Archer Jr. remembered, "that we were back in Mississippi now and not some goddamn celebrities in a goddamn ticker tape parade in New York."
"My earliest memory was of my father when he came back from the service," the adult Clarence explained. "That's about as far back as I can go in memory." He was quite young, three, possibly just four: "I recall him coming back in his uniform and playing with us, teaching us how to salute, and things of that sort that had to do with the military." It was a touching recollection, made even more special by the adult son's pride in his father's courage for courting the danger a black veteran risked for wearing his uniform in postwar Mississippi.
But Clarence's memory of his father was painful, too. Shortly after positioning his son's hand against his forehead in an approximation of a smart military salute, Walker was gone, out of Sunflower County, out of the state of Mississippi. Clarence, decades later, sought to explain: after France and the wartime experience, his father "wanted no more of the farm situation, the southern farm situation at least." In the years to come, Rachel almost never talked of Willie Walker. (Clarence, too, was reticent, except with a few close friends such as fellow Mississippian Harry Kincaid, who later reported that he and Clarence talked about "the father-mother thing" throughout their adult lives.) For his son, Willie Walker's abrupt departure was an early, perhaps the most wrenching, hurt Mississippi inflicted.
It was also a difficult moment for Rachel. The separation caused by military service had now become permanent, and if she had benefited from her husband's army pay, that also ended abruptly. A single mother in her twenties, with two children under five and no means of support but her daily labor, she faced a bleak future. Shortly after Willie Walker left for good, she moved her family some seventeen miles north from Indianola to a rural community just outside the town of Doddsville. Within a year, certainly before Clarence's fifth birthday in January 1920, Rachel met and married Henry Franklin, who worked a farm in the Doddsville area.
The stretch of road that gently bent to the curves of the Sunflower River between Indianola and Doddsville, then curled lazily north and east through Ruleville and Drew, Parchman and on to Tutwiler, a total distance of forty-three miles, pulsated with the tensions and vitality that layered segregated life in Mississippi. Well before that road became State Highway 49W, the frontage acres on either side marked the boundaries of the Delta's largest and wealthiest plantations. This was the classic Mississippi Delta: rich black soil birthing white cotton balls that dotted, pointillist fashion, a landscape stretching flat and motionless to a distant horizon where vision blurred. It was classic Mississippi Delta in another way as well: white folks owned the land and garnered its riches while black folks sweated their days in hard labor and service.
Along this road, for example, in the vicinity of Doddsville, the Eastland family had its vast, 2,300-acre plantation, which served as the base of their political power for generations to come. James O. Eastland, who would become one of the country's most powerful defenders of segregation in the United States Senate, was born into this family in 1904 in circumstances that vividly expressed the area's racial realities. Some months before Eastland's birth, Luther Holbert, a black sharecropper on the family plantation, shot and killed Eastland's Uncle James, who co-owned the family holdings with the future senator's father, W. C. Eastland. Holbert had killed James Eastland and the black tenant farmer accompanying him, when they came to his cabin to threaten him for some unknown conduct involving Holbert's wife. Immediately, both Holberts fled into the swamps, and Delta whites raised a 200-man posse to find them. It took four days.
Excerpted from Singing in A Strange Land by Nick Salvatore Copyright © 2005 by Nick Salvatore. Excerpted by permission.
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