Art Franklin, first Black man to anchor primetime news in Birmingham, writes a new chapter

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – It’s not the end for Art Franklin. It’s only the beginning.

Franklin, the first Black man to anchor a primetime news broadcast in Birmingham, signed off from CBS 42 for the last time on Friday. He said he will remain in the Magic City, though, continuing to tell the stories of community members and empowering them to change the world around them for the better. A Detroit native with a decades-long track record of thoughtful, dogged journalism, Franklin said there’s much more he hopes to accomplish as he moves forward.

Motown memories

Annie Franklin knew her seventh child would be special. She spoke it into existence. Seven is God’s number of perfection, she’d tell Art, and “God has a hand in your life.”

He didn’t doubt God’s presence, but Art Franklin knew his parents, too, had a hand in shaping his future. Franklin grew up on the east side of Detroit in a working-class neighborhood. His stepfather, Andrew, was an assemblyman at Chrysler, and Franklin said he and his siblings didn’t do without anything they needed. His mother Annie, he said, made sacrifices so that he could live comfortably.

Franklin spent his childhood exploring the city, pushing the boundaries to learn about the world around him. The Detroit River was only two city blocks from his home. He’d go to the river, or to the Detroit Yacht Club. Sometimes, he’d go down by the Roostertail, which looked across the river to Belle Isle, and onto Windsor, just across the water, but a country away.

“I grew up playing in the park, jumping on trains that you should not have jumped on – some things that were quite dangerous,” he said. “But it was a great, great childhood. I got everything that I think kids should be afforded – a good family, a good foundation.”

Art Franklin’s senior portrait (Courtesy)

Because of that foundation, Franklin excelled in school. At Lillibridge Elementary, at Foch Junior High, and at Southeastern High, he was a teacher’s pet. He still remembers those teachers: Mrs. Piper from Kindergarten was “amazing.” Mrs. Graham, his third-grade teacher, double promoted him from third to fifth grade. He could never forget her.

Once, Mrs. Graham caught Art talking in class. “I’m so surprised at you,” Art recalled her saying. She brought him to the front of the room and tried to paddle him. Accidentally, Mrs. Graham hit him on the back.

“That caused me to take a chair and swing one of our desks across the room,” he said.

Art’s brother, in sixth grade at the time, told him he was going to “get it” when he got home. But Mrs. Graham intervened.

“Do not hurt him,” Mrs. Graham told Annie Franklin over the phone. “Don’t whoop him because it was his asthma that made him do it.”

She’d saved the day. “She really cared about me,” Art said.

In his time at Southeastern High School, Franklin was one of 33 students placed on a biomedical sciences track aimed at paving their road to medical school.

Mrs. Howze was one of the teachers in the program, guiding the students through the difficult academics with compassion and grace. Toward the end of his time at Southeastern, Howze approached him.

“I’m concerned about you,” she told Art. He was confused. He’d had a 3.8 GPA and done well on his SAT. He’d already been accepted to the University of Michigan.

“Michigan’s a tough institution,” Howze told him. “So while you are smart here, you’re going to be faced with a whole different environment.”

Going Blue

Mrs. Howze was right. When he got to Michigan, Art continued down the pre-med path his high school had put him on. But when he got to physics, he knew he was at the end of the road.

“I had taken pre-cal and trig in high school, but Michigan was a different story,” he said. “But I never failed physics – I withdrew from it before I got an F.”

But the roadblock would help lead Franklin where he needed to go. A fellow student and pre-med major, Liz, told Art she was considering a change of major.

“It’s just too hard,” she told him.

She made the switch, moving to a major in radio, television and film. He soon followed. The new endeavor fit him well. At Southeastern, he’d fallen in love with reading lines in theater, performing in a Spanish drama called “The Devil Made Me Do it,” in which he’d played the lead role of a possessed attorney. Moving into production, Art hoped, would give him the ability to use those skills and also avoid the misery that physics had caused him.

Franklin enjoyed his time at Michigan, but as he was exposed to new ideas and experiences, he wanted to branch out – to learn more about the world outside of Detroit and Michigan.

Some of the new ideas that pushed Franklin in a new direction came from John Lockhart, an African-American studies professor at the University of Michigan. From Lockhart, he was able to go beyond “the Black History Month stuff that you see on the walls of schools” and learn more deeply about the history of the Black experience.

“I learned why [Black] institutions were so great and why they were established: for us to be successful,” he said. “Because when you went there, you went to a place that cared about your success.”

That institutional focus on Black excellence wasn’t something Franklin felt at the University of Michigan. It was at Michigan where he had first experienced racism – in a chemistry discussion group. Franklin was the only Black student in the group. He went to the class to take a quiz one day, arriving with some of his classmates, even following one white student through the doorway. The white student was given the quiz. Franklin was told he was late.

“Look around,” Franklin recalled the teacher saying. “You don’t belong here.”

“It stung,” Franklin said. “And that was when I realized that I was in an environment that I would have to battle in.”

He went to the department head to tell his story. They said he could switch classes to another section. Art refused.

“I decided no – she is going to see my Black face because I want her to know that I did belong there,” he said.

He wasn’t able to get the A he wanted, but he made it through the course. And the experience changed Art. He began to think more about the lessons John Lockhart had begun to teach him. One lesson, in particular, kept coming to mind.

“I had learned about Howard University. It was the Harvard of the Black schools,” Franklin said. He had two fraternity brothers that were headed to the school. So Art, too, at the end of his freshman year, would head for the hope of Howard.

The hope of Howard

Howard University would, in many ways, give Franklin the hope he needed. The experience solidified his cultural foundation. He found himself in the nation’s capital at age 18, a young brother of the Alpha chapter of Omega Psi Phi, the first fraternity founded at an HBCU.

“I was living life,” he said of the time.

But Franklin had made some slight miscalculations. He had not really considered the financial impact of the move. The scholarships he’d earned at the University of Michigan were no longer there, and Howard offered little in the way of transfer scholarships. So he found himself forced into more responsibility than he may have anticipated, working, for example, as a clerk at the Treasury Department, trying to make ends meet.

Franklin is grateful for his time at Howard, adding he wouldn’t trade it for the world. But his time there wasn’t destined to last until graduation. Once again, God had chosen another path. Because of love, Art explained, and a bit of homesickness, he transferred back to the University of Michigan, where he graduated in 1980.

While he said he doesn’t regret his decision to go back to Michigan, even now, Franklin wishes he had a degree from Howard University.

“It’s such a special place,” Art said. “And maybe it’s still possible – Pearl Bailey went back to Georgetown in her 70s.”

‘The revolution will be televised’

Franklin graduated from college at a difficult time for Black journalists. The country was in the midst of a significant political shift to the right, with Ronald Reagan soon ascending to the presidency. Diversity in media was extremely limited where it existed at all.

For Franklin, one man rose above it, providing him the vision he needed for where he wanted to go. Max Robinson was the first African American to regularly anchor the broadcast network news in the United States, serving as co-anchor of ABC World News Tonight with Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings from 1978 until 1983.

“Max challenged his own network at the time,” Franklin said. “He said ABC would take black journalists and journalists of color and put them in faraway places. But then when the big story came there, they pulled them out and put white journalists in their place.”

He said Robinson’s commitment to the Black community was clear, providing a model to aspire to.

“There was somebody who was truly fighting for people who look like me, and he was doing it at the highest level,” Franklin said. “I knew if I did what he did, I could be impactful in my community – to tell stories about us, by us with the context was necessary that can only come from people who had lived that life.”

Looking for a job, Franklin found that very few key roles – at newspapers and TV stations – were being given to Black men. Everywhere he turned, there was nobody who looked like him. Door after door was closed. But soon, he was able to slip his foot in the door – not at a newspaper on a TV station, but on the radio.

Nonetheless, once Franklin got his foot in the door, he quickly kicked it open.

Initially, he had been hired as a DJ at the station, WDZZ in Flint, Michigan. But it didn’t take long for him to get where he wanted to be – the news.

He started with sports reporting, even covering the inaugural year of the United States Football League when the Michigan Panthers won the league’s first championship.

Before long, he made the move to TV news, working at WILX in Lansing, Michigan, where he was the first Black man to anchor a regular news broadcast in the city.

Franklin was then hired by WAVY in Norfolk, Virginia, where he served as the station’s military affairs correspondent. When he began, he admittedly knew “nothing” about the military. He’d be a quick study, reporting from more than half a dozen countries while on assignment. During his time in Norfolk, Franklin also anchored the station’s public service program, “The Bottom Line.”

“That’s where I really grew up as a journalist,” Franklin said.

Birmingham, Round One

Franklin had no real desire to come to Alabama before he arrived in Birmingham for the first time. He wasn’t familiar with the South, and the region’s reputation was less than ideal. But he’d been offered two reporter positions – one in Atlanta and another in Tampa, but it was in the Magic City where he had a shot at the anchor desk.

Franklin took the opportunity, arriving in Birmingham in 1991 to work at WBRC. After being shown around the city – and exploring other parts himself – Franklin was brought to the newsroom and given the tour. One of the things he saw – the set for “Country Boy Eddie” – shocked him. The “Hee Haw”-esque Southern romanticism was something Franklin had never seen.

“Surprised is not the word I would use. I was shocked to see that there were still local programs on the air like that,” he said. “I realize how important the program was for the station at the time, but it was different. It reinforced what I thought about the South. But it also showed me that everybody wasn’t like me, and it was okay.”

Like in Lansing, Franklin’s role at WBRC made him a first — the first Black man to anchor the primetime news in the city. He stayed at WBRC until 2002. At the time, there were rumors he would run for mayor, but he moved to New York, taking enough time off to travel and write his book, “Give It All You Got: A Message to My Young Brothers.”

(Courtesy of The Birmingham News)

After that, Franklin returned to Atlanta, working for WXIA. He also anchored broadcasts at WAGA before serving as a spokesman for New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, whose leader at the time, Bishop Eddie Long, was embroiled in accusations of sexual abuse.

In 2016, Franklin came back to Birmingham to anchor the CBS 42 Morning News, then the evening news.

“It was a God thing,” he said of his return to the Magic City. “There’s no other way to explain it.”

Moving forward in the Magic City

Franklin’s legacy involves representation. In two different cities – Lansing and Birmingham – he became a symbol of the shift toward a more diverse, inclusive press that better reflects the community it serves.

He said that in his time in news, he’s seen media outlets make great strides, particularly in diversifying on-air talent. Sometimes, though, that on-air diversity hasn’t been enough.

“Seeing somebody who looks like you is important, but it’s also important to have them in management,” he said. “But the people making decisions are pretty much still the same. As you walk your way up the chain, you don’t see people of color. You don’t see women in the key positions they need to be in.”

Franklin said telling those stories – contextual, meaningful stories about the community he loves – is something he’ll continue to do in Birmingham, even if it’s not at CBS 42.

“My pastor said that sometimes you climb the ladder of success only to find your ladder is leaning against the wrong building. So I’m at the point where I’m deciding what going forward is like.”

Franklin said he still wants to have an impact in the city. What form that takes, he said, isn’t set in stone.

Since first coming to Birmingham over 30 years ago, Franklin has known every mayor. Richard Arrington appointed him to the Birmingham Youth Commission. Bernard Kincaid is a fraternity brother. Randall Woodfin has even challenged him to a dance-off.

And the rumors about a potential run for office won’t go away.

Franklin said he won’t rule out a run for Birmingham’s highest political office in the future.

“Never say never,” Franklin said. “I’ve learned to trust God’s plan. I am not running for mayor of the City of Birmingham. But tomorrow, if God were to reveal that there was something else that he needed me to do – that included leading this city in a different way than I have – then I will listen. I will listen to God’s voice.

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