Opinion: A former Morehouse president campaigns as a John Lewis disciple

Departing president and Morehouse alum Robert Franklin presented the 128th commencement address.
Departing president and Morehouse alum Robert Franklin presented the 128th commencement address.

Seven people have each paid $5,220 for a chance to take the late John Lewis’s seat in Congress — most likely for a mere 32 days.

The winner will have the honor of including “former member of Congress” in his or her obituary, lifetime floor privileges in the U.S. Capitol — and an opportunity to bear close witness to the aftermath of a pandemic-tinged presidential contest, likely to be one of the most rancorous in American history.

But wait, there’s more: The victor could also be required to participate in last-minute efforts to keep the federal government solvent, something that has become a December tradition in Washington.

The above might confuse those who remember that, within days of the Fifth District congressman’s death last month, state senator and Democratic Party chair Nikema Williams was named to replace Lewis on the Nov. 3 ballot.

But that election is for a two-year term that begins at noon next Jan. 3. The situation is not unlike a paper towel that has failed to tear cleanly down the dotted line. Lewis died with five months left in his current term, which ends at noon that same Jan. 3.

A special election to fill that gap has been called for Sept. 29. If none of the seven candidates wins a majority of the vote — which is highly likely, a runoff will be held on Dec. 1.

Five Democrats, one independent, and one Libertarian have paid their qualifying fees to be placed on the ballot. Some of the names are familiar: State Rep. Able Mable Thomas, former Atlanta city councilman, mayoral candidate Kwanza Hall, and former state lawmaker Keisha Waites.

Then there’s Stephen Muhammad of East Point, the independent, and Chase Oliver, the Libertarian. And Barrington D. Martin II, a Democrat who challenged Lewis in the June primary. The dying incumbent beat him with 88% of the vote.

The most interesting candidate in the bunch may be Robert Franklin, the former president of both Morehouse College and the Interdenominational Theological Center. He’s also been a professor of social ethics at Emory University — an area of study much needed but little valued in Washington.

In the rush to fill Lewis’ place on the November ballot, the executive committee of the state Democratic party narrowed dozens of applicants to a short list of five. Nikema Williams was on that list. So was Franklin.

Franklin has no need to be known as a former congressman. His resume is hefty enough. So I asked him why, at age 66, he was embarking on a political career.

At first, his answers were pretty standard. He’d headed up two of the Fifth District’s anchor institutions, had a network of national and international contacts, and so could be an immediate – if temporary voice. And there was the standard, working-across-the-aisle quote.

“I’ve done that as a college president, working with our Republican senators and House members almost on a monthly basis up on Capitol Hill,” Franklin said.

But eventually, he got down to brass tacks: The last two months of 2020 could overshadow everything this year has already thrown at us.

“Ultimately, we need to prepare the nation for what many feel will be a change in presidential administrations,” he said. “How does one preside over that kind of transition — where there will be deep and sharp-elbowed polarization and animus?”

“Someone with the right skill set, as I have, could address that,” he said.

Issues of the day will get their due. Voting rights. COVID-19 and the survival of families the virus has pushed to the margins. “I’m not happy with the way the CDC has been marginalized, politicized,” he said.

But it is entirely possible that the presidential contest will have moved from the ballot box to courtrooms across the country by the time the Fifth District seat is filled. If Republicans lose control of the Senate, a lame-duck session could be rife with intrigue and score-settling.

“How do we move from conflict and tension toward listening, toward justice and reconciliation? This is work I’ve done all of my adult life,” he said. “This is an emotionally complicated time that requires someone who knows how to steward John Lewis’ legacy.”

In essence, Franklin will be campaigning as Lewis’ disciple. “Even if I only have two weeks, I’ve already begun to sketch a series of themes and messages — to keep John Lewis’ voice in the well of Congress, to remind them that John Lewis is watching Capitol Hill and the White House,” he said.

Like many of us, Franklin said he grew up rubbing shoulders with men and women we now label icons. He was a Morehouse College student when he helped Andrew Young win the Fifth District seat in 1972.

Franklin said his friendship with Lewis took root when he was president of Morehouse, a storied institution that counts Martin Luther King Jr. among its graduates. Franklin served as president from 2007 to 2012.

“We’d sit in his office – that extraordinary office overlooking the Lincoln Memorial. He’d often hold me late, to talk about key issues that required an ethical analysis. He was working out his thoughts and positions, trying to weigh power and love and justice and reconciliation — these larger, almost theological, ethical themes,” Franklin said. “It was a conversation that had depth. This was more than a Facebook opportunity. It was his seeking out an intellectual partner.”

Political legacies depend on and are shaped by those who come afterward. Not unlike many religions. John Lewis’ legacy will get its first on-the-ground test next month.

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