November 10, 2011 11:45 Age: 2 yrs

Occupy Wall Street Protest Isn’t Going Away, Former Mayor Franklin Says at Emory Lecture

Atlanta’s former mayor, Shirley Franklin, says it takes mental toughness, conviction and the ability to define priorities to be an effective political leader. And those who choose a career in a politics should expect the inevitable trade-off of having every aspect of their private life becoming public, she said.

Franklin spoke Nov. 9 on “Building on the Roots of Our Past, Leaving a Legacy for Tomorrow,” at the annual fall lecture presented by the Emory Black Law Students Association and Smith Gambrell & Russell LLP.

When she ran for mayor in 2001, Franklin had no experience in running for office, but had worked in government since the 1970s. She was told she couldn’t win because she was too short, a woman and an African-American who dyed her hair blonde.

Franklin won the mayor’s office, the first woman to do so. But her concessions included wearing three-inch heels and skirts every day while in office—things that didn’t come naturally. It’s an example, she said, of while political life doesn’t mean your principles have to change, one must adjust to realities, perhaps unfair, such as politicians are judged by the way they look.

Crucial factors to becoming a leader are “being educated on the issues that matter to you,” and being available and accessible to share that knowledge, Franklin said. Then be relentless in delivering your message, no matter where you are.

As mayor, Franklin knew Atlanta’s dying infrastructure could kill the city’s growth and success, so for 18 months she talked about water-sewer issues every time she was in public—whether at a bar mitzvah or the press club.

America’s leadership is transitioning from the generation that fought for civil rights to the next, which views the struggle as important, but historical. It will be interesting to see if those now under 40 will view protecting others’ rights as a priority, she said.

A litmus test for that is going on right now, with the Occupy Wall Street movement. She referenced New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hope that the onset of winter would disband the protestors in Zucotti Park.  While she feels his pain as a mayor, she doubts it.

“Occupy Wall Street, globally, will not go away,” Franklin said. The issues of equity, poverty and the disparity of wealth are for the current generation of students to solve.

“The wealth gap today is greater today than it was when I went to college,” she said. “If it continues for another generation or two, it—in my opinion—will undo the democracy.”

While some complain the “We Are the 99 percent” protests lack focus, she said the civil rights and women’s rights movements also had chaotic beginnings. The March on Washington, which she attended in 1963 with her mother, didn’t plan for food or toilets for half a million people.

“The logistics were terrible,” she said, but it’s now justly hailed as a landmark in civil rights history.

Franklin said the way to solve wealth disparity is to invest in education at every level. It’s something she did in office, and continues to lobby for as a private but vocal citizen.

“It’s the single surest way to have a healthy economy,” she said.

 

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