In 2005, Mayor Shirley Clarke Franklin of Atlanta was named one of the top five best big-city mayors and one of the best leaders. She was the first woman ever to be elected mayor of Atlanta and she just happened to be a Black woman. That same year, Franklin received the “Profiles in Courage” award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation for her management of the city and the restoration of confidence in the city government following allegations of corruption in the previous administration. She has also received the NAACP leadership award, the YWCA Woman of the Year and Woman of Achievement awards, and an honorary Doctor of Laws from her alma mater, Howard University, in 2002.
Since 1974, Black mayors have led the city that has become a business center for a new generation of Black entrepreneurs. Atlanta has been called the “Gateway to the South” and it is the largest center of trade, transportation and industry in the southeastern United States, home to one of the world’s busiest airports, under the control of Mayor Franklin, the only Black chief executive of a major southern city.
She was born Shirley Clarke on May 17, 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Eugene H. Clarke and Ruth L. White. After spending her early years in Philadelphia, she attended Howard University, Washington D. C. where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology in 1968. Franklin was also involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She then returned to the University of Pennsylvania where she obtained her Master of Arts degree also in sociology.
In 1972, she officially became Mrs. Franklin when she married David McCoy Franklin, settling in Atlanta. The marriage produced three sons: Kai Ayanna, Cabral Holsey and Kali Jamilla. (After the couple divorced in 1986, Franklin and her sons continued to live in the same house until she became the mayor). Franklin’s husband played a key role in the election of Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of Atlanta, and through that association, her interest in politics began.
Her actual career in government/politics began in 1978 during Jackson’s second term as mayor. She was appointed the commissioner of cultural affairs in the Jackson administration from 1978 to 1982. She then served as chief administrative officer and city manager in the administration of Jackson’s successor, Mayor Andrew Young.
After serving two consecutive mayors, she remained committed to the city and assisted in preparing for the 1996 Olympic Games as the senior vice president for external relation for the Committee for the Olympic, Inc.. Once she returned to the private sector, she founded and led the Shirley Clarke Franklin & Associates management and consulting firm in 1997 its CEO. Franklin also became a partner in Urban Environmental Solutions, LLC, and chaired Georgia’s Regional Transporta-tion Authority. Her roles developing solutions to urban environmental problems and studying the state’s transportation problems fashioned her effectiveness in her to her next career move.
During her time in city government and as a private citizen, she served on the boards of several civil and cultural organizations including the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the National Endowment for the Arts, Spelman College and the National Urban Coalition. Franklin was also a member of the Democratic National Committee.
In 2001, Franklin ran for the office of the mayor of Atlanta; it was her first run for an elective office. Despite being labeled a neophyte and other “obvious” stereotypical names as an African-American and a woman, she defeated several more well known candidates to become the 58th mayor of Atlanta.
Since there was rampant dissatisfaction with her predecessor, a restoration of voter confidence was one of her major focuses. As soon as she was inaugurated in 2002, Franklin laid out an ambitious agenda for the city which included repairing Atlanta’s aging sewerage system to bring it in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. She said, “We must invest in infrastructure, or Atlanta’s economy - and the national economy - is going to shrivel up and die.”
The significance of her approach was two-fold: to stop the financial hemorrhaging the violation was causing and to return the money that resulted in fines being paid to the Environmental Protection Agency. She also appointed a task force that recommended that the city doubled its green space to 6,000 acres within ten years.
In her first term, Franklin restored governmental accountability to the people, and strengthened the effectiveness and efficiency relating to public services. (She gave the voters what they asked for - a more responsive city government). In addition under her leadership, the partnership between the public and the private sectors were increased dramatically. That resulted in more services to those who were beyond/beneath the city’s radar.
Like many big city mayors, Franklin had her detractors and faced a certain amount of criticism. She understood that in no human endeavor, such as running a big city government, will there be 100 percent satisfaction. That is the nature of the multi-party form of government and where there is no opposition, the opportunity to grow is stifled. By the end of her first term, Franklin was credited with turning an $82 million deficit into an $18 million surplus.
With solid support especially from the business sector, Franklin was elected to a second term in 2005 garnering over 90 percent of the vote. Her overwhelming approval among the electorate fueled speculation that she may be looking at the governor’s race in the future. During an interview with “Jet” magazine, Franklin reportedly said, “I proudly represent all the women who have worked in the fields, toiled in the kitchen, fought for our rights and challenged our society.”
Though she knew that she could not have run for a third consecutive term, Franklin began her second term like she did her first - with an ambitious agenda. In 2006, she took a group from the business community on a business trip China with the intent of increasing her city’s economy and to encourage the Chinese to establish a consulate in Atlanta. For this, she received criticism as a pro-business mayor. However, some of her pro-business leanings resulted in higher property values and an increase in real estate taxes. This angered some of the voters who claimed that such policies were against the poor but Franklin’s claimed that the resultant increase in the city’s revenue ultimately helped the poor.
Some of her other accomplishments included the implementation of one of the strongest ethics reform programs in the state of Georgia and the nation; the commission of long-range plans to enhance Atlanta’s plans for economic development with innovative initiatives like the Beltline, Peachtree Corridor and the arts; the Mayor’s Youth Program designed to engage Atlanta’s high school students in developing plans for beyond high school - college or workforce; the completion of the fifth runway of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport; and the study of homelessness and to develop a blueprint to end homelessness in Atlanta in ten years.
There were some major accomplishments that were a continuation of her predecessors as far back as Mayor Jackson relative to police relations, fire department improvements and affirmative action which was rendered somewhat “toothless” by conflicting court decisions and recalcitrant public officials.
Also in 2006, Franklin led the effort to have Dr. Martin Luther King’s papers donated to his alma mater, Morehouse College instead of having the papers sold at an auction. For that effort, she said, “I never imagined I could contribute to the continuation of Dr. King’s legacy in such a significant way.” She was almost to tears during the ceremonies.
As the top Democrat in the city, she went against the political grain and openly endorsed Senator Barack Obama when he announced his candidacy in 2007. Despite the fact that Atlanta’s political movers-and shakers - Black and White - who believed the first term senator from Illinois was just “testing the waters,” and he did not have a chance against the better-financed, high-profiled, former first lady, Senator Hillary Clinton. (Of course, subsequent events have since penetrated the walls of the Clinton stronghold and Obama is expected to officially become the Democratic Party’s nominee at the 2008 August convention in Denver, Colorado). Franklin unequivocally stated that she endorsed Obama 150 percent. As history unfolded, she is one of the super delegates who helped him become the nominee.
Her final mayoral term expires in less than two years and Franklin has worked continuously to leave Atlanta in much better shape than she found it: fiscally and more responsive to its citizens.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.