Roasting and honoring former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin

By Maria Saporta

Roasts are dangerous. But when Better Georgia representatives asked if I would be willing to roast former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, I couldn’t resist.

Better Georgia, an organization that is promotes progressive policies for the state, held its annual fundraiser on Feb. 25 at the Four Seasons Hotel. The event was cleverly called “Shirley, We Jest!”

Shirley Franklin Bryan Long

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin accepts a cartoon drawn by Mike Luckovich from Better Georgia’s Bryan Long at the Shirley, We Jest! dinner (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The fellow roasters were Alexis Scott, former publisher of the Atlanta Daily World; former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young; and former Gov. Roy Barnes.
“I agreed to do this before I realized what I was being asked to do,” Young said. “The only problem with me roasting Shirley is it’s probably going to be all true.”

Franklin started her career with the City when Maynard Jackson had been elected as Atlanta’s first African-American mayor. She served as Atlanta’s commissioner of cultural affairs.

When Andrew Young was elected in 1981, he named Franklin to lead his transition team. After being grilled by Franklin, more often than not, people would resign.

“When I looked around for them, they were all gone,” Young recalled. Plus, he remembered someone telling him: “Please do not let Shirley run this city. She cannot even keep her house clean.”

Roy Barnes Andrew Young

Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes huddles with Andrew Young before the Better Georgia dinner (Photo by Maria Saporta)

That was the wrong comment to make. His late wife – Jean – immediately stood up for Franklin – pointing to an embroidered pillow with the saying: “A clean house is a sign of a misspent life.”

When Young offered Franklin the job to be chief administrative officer for the city, he explained that he wasn’t going to be around that much. His priority would be to travel and drum up business for Atlanta.

“I need somebody I can trust to hold things together,” he told her. So they developed a working relationship.

“I would come with all these high-minded ideas, and she said: ‘I’ll take care of that.’ Then I would leave,” Young said. But when he would return to Atlanta, he realized that Franklin’s idea of taking care of something could mean that she wouldn’t do anything at all.

When Young confronted her, she quickly said: “If you wanted to take care of it, you should have stayed here.”

Alexis Scott, Shirley Franklin, Maria Saporta

Alexis Scott, Shirley Franklin and Maria Saporta at Better Georgia dinner (Photo by Sue Ross)

Then Young acknowledged something he has rarely done before. Calling Atlanta “the greatest city that I know of in the world,” Young said he doesn’t deserve all the accolades he’s received.

“Don’t blame it on me, and don’t give me the credit,” Young said before mentioning Franklin. “She can be as sweet as she can be, and she can raise more hell. She certainly has made me my life very, very successful. You can have somebody come over to get all those plaques I have in the basement.”

Former Gov. Barnes referred to Franklin’s reputation as the “sewer mayor” because she pioneered the effort to reinvest in Atlanta’s water and sewer infrastructure.

“I don’t know what it is, but every time I flush my commode, I think of Shirley Franklin,” Barnes said. “She is a mixture of tough as nails and as sweet as she can be… You can’t be around Shirley and not like her.”

During my roasting of the former mayor, I remembered when she had just been elected in 2001 but had not yet taken office. She was a keynote speaker at the 2001 annual luncheon of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

After her talk, I went to ask her some questions. She told me she really needed to go to the bathroom. “You can come with me. You’ve never been able to go to the bathroom with an Atlanta mayor before.”

That’s when I realized how much the world had really changed.

During her tenure as mayor, I wrote several critical columns of some of her administration’s policies. When I would see her after those columns, she never mentioned what I had written.  I mean, she didn’t even issue press releases to blast me – or what I had written.

Shirley with Ruth Woodling and Catherine Woodling

Shirley Franklin with friends Ruth and Catherine Woodling (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Finally, after one particularly tough column with no response, I asked her if she had read it.  “Yes,” she answered. “You were just doing your job.”

The one time she commented on something I had written, she told me: “Maria, we can’t save every tree in Atlanta.”

About three years ago, Shirley and I were both on a Leadership Atlanta program for young leaders. She was talking about being mayor – and how she had to deal with journalists like me. She ticked off nearly every one of my critical columns.

Mayor Franklin had been in office for a couple of years when I began to notice a new breed of leader – women who were all about five-feet-two. There was Franklin, Cathy Woolard, Lynnette Young, Dianne Harnell Cohen, Beverly Scott, Beverly Hall, Luz Borrero, Renee Glover, Hattie Dorsey among others.

Little did I know there was a secret society taking over our local governments. They even had a name: “Bitches in Charge.”

While she was mayor, Mayor Franklin worked to build closer ties in the region. After several years of trying, Franklin told me she could have a greater impact on the region if she made the City of Atlanta as strong as it could be. And she wasn’t looking for easy, short-term returns. She was thinking 25 to 50 years in the future.

Cathy Woolard Cesear Mitchell

Two mayoral hopefuls attend Shirley, We Jest! dinner – former City Council President Cathy Woolard and current City Council President Ceasar Mitchell (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Towards the end of her administration, Franklin began reciting one her favorite quotes: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

As I said that Thursday night, Atlanta may have lost some trees during her administration, but she planted many more trees that will provide shade for our children and grandchildren.

The Better Georgia event was particularly touching for Franklin. Her son, Cabral Franklin, had chaired the organization before he passed away from cancer last fall. Cabral’s presence was felt during the entire evening.

“It‘s been a fun night,” Franklin said. “We’ve done a lot of things in Atlanta. The challenge is not what we’ve done in the past but what we are going to do going forward.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

3 replies
  1. Debi Starnes says:

    Great evening, indeed!   Just one correction about Mayor Franklin’s tenure at City Hall.  We called ourselves “Chicks in Charge”….. not sure who altered our title.  🙂
    Debi Starnes
    Former City CouncilpersonReport

    Reply
  2. John R Naugle says:

    Greetings from Atlanta: City of Peace.
    Shirley Franklin is our beloved former Atlanta Mayor and very deserving of every recognition. I appreciate the amplification of Debi Starnes, former Atlanta City Councilperson, who stated Mayor Franklin’s tenure at City Hall was actually referred to as “Chicks in Charge.”
    It is fantastic to note that Mayor Shirley Franklin led our city from 2002-2010 which was at the birth of, and in first very decade of the Peace Millennium (Years 2000-3000). Her formidable accomplishments auspiciously instilled the inspiring words of Coretta Scott King who stated:
    “There is a spirit, a need, and a servant at the beginning of every great human advance. Every one of these must be right for that particular moment of history, or nothing happens.”
    MUCH happened in our GREAT city during Shirley’s leadership, and it was perfect that she was leading our city when we all lost Coretta, a GREAT sister of our Global Family, on January 30th 2006. We all now observe the 10th memorial anniversary of her passing (2006-2016). Our organization has even declared her as…
    Coretta Scott King: The Honorary Matriarch of the Peace Millennium!
    INVITATION: We welcome everyone’s courageous participation (especially Shirley and “Chicks in Charge”) to propel great success to our blossoming project of creating the world’s biggest peace garden in her memory & celebration. We have called it:
    Coretta’s Global Peace Garden
    [Please sign our new online petition at http://www.GlobalPeaceGarden.org ]
    You are all can become a key official co-founders with us (NOTE: 13 states in the USA and 7 nations are already represented on the new petition). How this HUGE peace garden will grow into phenomenal success is open to YOUR participation and everyone’s opportunity.
    Regarding Shirley’s & Coretta’s leadership (plus “Chicks in Charge”) they represent a VERY exciting global shift that happening worldwide and which is nurturing many new degrees of health into our Global Family. Shiva Vangara, an inspiring leader in southeast India proclaims it in the best way:
    “Women are the true hope & power of the Third Millennium!”
    The new era of transformation and the Peace Millennium are upon us. The inspiring service of Coretta and Shirley, plus many other women civic, government and business leaders in Atlanta have wonderfully positioned our city for  immeasurable service in the future.
    It’s GREAT that LOVE, the greatest virtue, is inscribed upon Mrs. King’s tomb. She was such a trailblazer and an equal to her husband. Note: “Obey” was intentionally NOT in her wedding vows, plus she was a formidable Gandhi proponent along with her husband.
    What gives our collective future their greatest hope are the many ways that patriarchy is dying and gender balance/equality is growing. Global Nonviolent revolutions, like ONE BILLION RISING (dot) org, are bringing important healing and gender balance to our global family (examine Gandhi’s GREAT wisdom about women in the image & quote below, plus in these other inspiring points of substantiation)…
    1. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated… “Gender equality and the empowerment of women are gaining ground worldwide.”
    2. Kofi Annan, former U.N. Secretary-General, stated… “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.”
    3. Anna Quindlan stated… “The central story of the 2012 Olympiad is that more women than men participated.”
    4. Vinoba Bhave (a Gandhi protégé) stated… “There is nothing to equal the part my mother played in shaping my mind.”
    5. His Holiness The Dalai Lama, an official part-time resident of Atlanta, stated… “To promote greater compassion, we must pay special attention to the role of women… My first teacher of love and compassion was my own mother, who provided me with maximum love… I believe that the time has come for women to take more active roles in all domains of human society, in an age in which education and the capacities of the mind, not physical strength, define leadership. This could help create a more equitable and compassionate society.”
    6. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed… “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
    7. Malala, the World’s 1st Teen Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, proclaimed… “This is what my soul is telling me. Be PEACEFUL and LOVE everyone.”
    8. Swami Vivekananda said… “There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of woman is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on only one wing.”Report

    Reply

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