ORANGE CITY, Iowa | On Feb. 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last great sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The message, shared two months before he was killed, came to be known as the "Drum Major Instinct."
Forty-eight years later, it guides Rahn Franklin, an African-American serving Northwestern College in Orange City. King talked about his eulogy in that message. He said he didn't want it mentioned he'd earned a Nobel Peace Prize. He didn't want it said where he went to school or how he'd been presented 300 to 400 awards for his work.
Rather, King wanted a eulogy that focused on the fact he tried to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those imprisoned. He wanted folks to know he tried to love and serve humanity, that he wanted to live on the right or left side of Jesus out of love and justice, not ambition or in search of a political kingdom.
"...if you want to say I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice," King said.
Rahn Franklin quotes King while sitting in his office at Northwestern, situated in the county seat of a county known for progressive business and conservative political values. It is a county whose minority population, like that found across the U.S., is growing.
Franklin, the college's director of multicultural student development, seeks to connect people of different colors, faiths, socioeconomic standings and backgrounds. It isn't easy, he admits. It is, however, mandated in the Gospel.
I came to know of Franklin some 12 years ago when he enrolled at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. Franklin was a native of Kansas City, the child of a former Marine and a stay-at-home mother. For a time, the family resided in a home built in the Habitat for Humanity program. For most of his childhood, though, he and his family resided in an apartment, sharing experiences with the poor and those well-to-do.
From a socioeconomic standpoint, Rahn Franklin landed somewhere in the middle. He rode a bus to high school and traveled home after basketball practice with friends who had their own cars. His high school basketball coach during his senior year was Jim Hinrich, the former West High basketball mentor, father of NBA star Kirk Hinrich.
"Jim Hinrich brought our team to a summer tournament at Harlan High School in Harlan, Iowa," Franklin remembers. "That was my first visit to Iowa. I stepped out of the high school, looked at all the corn and said, 'I will NEVER live in Iowa."
One year later, Rahn Franklin stood in Siebens Fieldhouse at freshman orientation at Buena Vista. His eyes met the eyes of the only other African-American student in the fieldhouse that afternoon. The two young men, Franklin and Josh Murray, a member of the wrestling team, were on opposite ends of the gym. By the end of the session, they stood next to one another, and remain friends to this day.
Franklin starred on the basketball court for four seasons at Buena Vista, a gritty guard who finished his collegiate athletic career with two seasons on the gridiron. He remains a star for the Sioux City Bandits indoor football franchise.
With the topic being Martin Luther King Jr. and the celebration of his life this week, I ask if Franklin ever encountered racism in Northwest Iowa. He cites an instance when, as a residential director in a Buena Vista dormitory, he contacted police to bust a student for having marijuana in his room. An officer entered the room and found Franklin and the student, who was white, sitting on the student's bed. Franklin, who was dressed in a vest and tie, was asked to stand up and place his hands behind his back to be handcuffed.
"I told the officer that I was the one who reported this," he says.
The experience, while memorable, clearly doesn't define Franklin's time at Buena Vista. Nor does it define the consistent actions of local law enforcement. Mark Prosser, Storm Lake's public safety director, for example, recently spoke at a Christian Community Development regional conference at Dordt College in nearby Sioux Center, Iowa. Franklin attended. Prosser on Monday is set to receive a Dr. Martin Luther King Achievement Award.
Franklin is pleased to hear of it. "We need to embrace our theology and make it our methodology," he says.
Franklin, 30, is now married to the former Rachel Fritz, of Paullina, Iowa, and the father of their son, Noah, 2. He provides leadership for student diversity at NWC and champions the Bridge Scholars Program to help develop student leaders from diverse backgrounds, often among those population groups historically under-represented in college.
Northwestern's minority enrollment represented just 6.5 percent of the student body five years ago, when Franklin arrived. The school's minority enrollment has since doubled, to 13.5 percent of the student body.
And while the numbers, or growth, represent progress, I sense Franklin is just as focused on making connections with students from rural Northwest Iowa communities, so-called "traditional" NWC students as he is on fostering growth among minorities.
"Love God and love our neighbors as ourselves," says Franklin, who is two years from earning his doctorate. "We make peace in places where it is not present, so that that all people may thrive and reach their potential."
That is the drum Rahn Franklin beats, or directs, the background sound for a slate of daily activities he's planned this week at Northwestern, a period they call "Justice Week." Speakers from all over the country make stops here Monday through Saturday, detailing their shared experiences, ranging from poverty to reconciliation, from civil rights battles to hopes of life eternal.
"Justice," Franklin says. "I believe that's the legacy for Dr. King. Love somebody, and make the world a better place by doing what you can right where you are, advocating for justice."