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Howard G. Franklin participated in the Civil Rights Movement as a public defender in California



TIDINGS PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Howard Franklin wrote Gideon's Children in the 1970s, but it was only recently that his wife discovered the manuscript and urged him to publish it.

Howard G. Franklin considers himself a warrior in the fight for civil rights — though, Franklin points out, he wasn’t a Freedom Rider, and he didn’t march at Selma.

“Or anywhere else, for that matter,” the Wilsonville resident says, “so I didn’t get hit over the head and bloodied. Yet I really wanted to get into that fight.”

To get into the fight, Franklin, 74, signed on in 1968 to be a public defender in Los Angeles County, working in a district that included Compton, Watts and Willowbrook and representing mainly African American defendants in a legal system that was often stacked against them.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision five years earlier had spurred the creation or expansion of public defender offices across the country. In Gideon v. Wainwright the court ruled that all criminal defendants have a right to legal counsel. And if they can’t afford it, the state must provide representation at no charge.

“Because of ‘Gideon,’” Franklin says, “people are not going to have to stand in court alone — and that’s a huge difference.”

The lawyers, often young, who became public defenders in the years following Gideon v. Wainwright, Franklin says, “were idealistic. They believed in fighting for social justice. And there was, within the greater revolution, a mini-revolution within the court system. Because people started going to trial and making sure constitutional rights were being followed.”

“I was one of those persons.”

Franklin chronicled his experiences working as a public defender in the novel “Gideon’s Children,” which was released in March.

While the book only recently became available, Franklin wrote it in the 1970s. He made an effort to get it published at that time. And, he says, there was interest into using it as a basis for a TV series.

But, Franklin recalls, “it sort of died out,” and the manuscript for “Gideon’s Children” was stashed away until being re-discovered by his wife and editor, Linda, a few years ago.

Born in St. Joseph, Mo., Franklin was raised in Los Angeles. He attended the University of Southern California, where he received a degree in real estate and finance. But, based on urging from his grandfather, Franklin ventured down another path.

“I had a terrific interest, always, in history and in politics,” he says, “and my grandfather encouraged me to go to law school.

“He said, ‘You can do OK in business, but I don’t see that as being your real area of passion. So, think about going to law school and we’ll see what happens politically.’”

While attending the Boalt Hall law school at the University of California at Berkeley, Franklin began writing letters to Robert Kennedy, saying that he wanted to be part of Kennedy’s anticipated 1968 presidential run.

Following his graduation, as he was waiting to take the California Bar exam, Franklin got great news from the Kennedy campaign: If they won the California primary, they would expand their staff and Franklin would be part of that group.

“And we win the next primary. But, tragically, he walks through the kitchen and gets assassinated,” Franklin says, referring to Kennedy being gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968. “I had a long talk with myself. I had spent a summer clerking in the public defender’s office, and I liked it a lot. So I said, well, let’s give that a try.”

Franklin calls his four years as a public defender — during which he often faced both rancor from judges and law enforcement and distrust from his African American clients — as difficult but rewarding.

“We did some good,” he says, “and that old expression — be the change you want to see — we tried to do that.”

During law school Franklin also began to write fiction and, later, poetry. His writing really took off, though, in the 1980s. Before the publication of “Gideon’s Children,” Franklin published more than 20 poems, two short stories and a book about his travels through Ireland.

It was through the publication of the travelogue — “an Irish Experience” — that Franklin met editor Linda Weinerman (now Linda Franklin) of Inkwater Press. The two were married in 2008.

About three years ago, Linda Franklin was perusing her husband’s many unpublished manuscripts and came upon “Gideon’s Children.”

“She said, ‘you know, they’re all pretty good, but there’s one that can be special” Franklin recalls. “I would love to see you rewrite this book.”

Linda Franklin said it was the message of the book — protecting individual rights against the power of the state — that she found compelling.

That message, she says, “is increasingly relevant again.”

Franklin says that, in addition to recent high-profile cases involving the use of force by police officers against minorities, he is concerned about the broad reaching surveillance powers given to government agencies in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“What really makes us a democracy is the Bill of Rights, he says. “And they are under attack because of terrorism, this so-called ‘war on.’ And I’m not advocating for a moment that we fight terrorism by the Marquess of Queensberry Rules — but, on the other hand, if we allow the NSA and the CIA to spy on us with no restrictions whatsoever ... then our fear of terrorism is going to turn us into something as bad as them, and they win either way.”

Much of the editing process for “Gideon’s Children” entailed adding historical context to a book written in the 1970s, Linda Franklin says.

“When he wrote it, it was contemporary,” she says. “People understood the references; they knew the times. You can’t come back 40-plus years later and expect your audience to know what you’re talking about. You’ve got to bring it back in.”

And that effort to add context, both Franklins say, has resulted in a book that is both an accurate historical, depiction of the late 1960s, as well as a primer on the workings of the court system.

History and legal lessons aside, the book isn’t dry. At its heart, according to the publisher’s description, is the fictional account of “five young public defenders fiercely battling prosecutors, cops and judges within the raw environment of murder, rape, robbery and drugs.”

In the decades since he was a public defender, Franklin says, the United States has made “significant progress” in terms of race relations.

“It’s just such a long journey. America has such a long history with race. It started when we did. You don’t get rid of that problem easily or quickly,” he says. “The fact that we have an African American president of the United States is something I never thought I’d see in my life time. I literally cried with joy.”

Find the book: “Gideon’s Children” can be purchased online, in both print and digital form, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Powell’s City of Books.

For more info, go to howardgfranklin.com.

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