12 August 19
How two people made a big difference
On July 31, 1968, a young, black man was reading the newspaper when he saw something that he had never seen before. With tears in his eyes, he started running and screaming throughout the house, calling for his mom. He would show his mom, and, she would gasp, seeing something she thought she would never see in her lifetime. Throughout the nation, there were similar reactions.
What they saw was Franklin Armstrong's first appearance on the iconic comic strip Peanuts.
[Note: The reaction described above to that historic moment came from a reader who saw the original post of this story when it was first published on Facebook. The story and its updates on the Peace Page has now reached more than 22 million Facebook readers, written about in Upworthy, shared 281,000 times, and even found an international audience in an Italian magazine.]
As the Peace Page retells the story from multiple sources online, Franklin was "born" after a school teacher, Harriet Glickman, wrote a letter to creator Charles M. Schulz after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot to death outside his Memphis hotel room.
Glickman, who had kids of her own and having worked with children, was especially aware of the power of comics among the young. “And my feeling at the time was that I realized that black kids and white kids never saw themselves [depicted] together in the classroom,” she said in the Washington Post.
According to NPR, she wrote, “Since the death of Martin Luther King, 'I’ve been asking myself what I can do to help change those conditions in our society which led to the assassination and which contribute to the vast sea of misunderstanding, hate, fear and violence.'”
Glickman asked Schulz if he could consider adding a black character to his popular comic strip, which she hoped would bring the country together and show people of color that they are not excluded from American society.
She had written to others as well, but the others feared it was too soon, that it may be costly to their careers, that the syndicate would drop them if they dared do something like that.
Charles Schulz did not have to respond to her letter, he could have just completely ignored it, and everyone would have forgotten about it. But, Schulz did take the time to respond, saying he was intrigued with the idea, but wasn't sure whether it would be right, coming from him, he didn't want to make matters worse, he felt that it may sound condescending to people of color.
Glickman did not give up, and continued communicating with Schulz, with Schulz surprisingly responding each time. She even had black friends write to Schulz and explain to him what it would mean to them and gave him some suggestions on how to introduce such a character without offending anyone. Her friend Kenneth C. Kelly, a black father of two, would encourage Schulz.
This conversation would continue until one day, Schulz told Glickman to check her newspaper on July 31, 1968.
On that date, the cartoon, as created by Schulz, shows Charlie Brown meeting a new character, named Franklin. Other than his color, Franklin was just an ordinary kid who befriends and helps Charlie Brown. Franklin also mentions that his father was "over at Vietnam." At the end of the series, which lasted three strips, Charlie invites Franklin to spend the night one day so they can continue their friendship.
There was no big announcement, there was no big deal, it was just a natural conversation between two kids, whose obvious differences did not matter to them. And, the fact that Franklin's father was fighting for this country was also a very strong statement by Schulz.
Although Schulz never made a big deal over the inclusion of Franklin, there were many fans, especially in the South, who were very upset by it and that made national news. One Southern editor even said, “I don’t mind you having a black character, but please don’t show them in school together.”
It would eventually lead to a conversation between Schulz and the president of the comic's distribution company, who was concerned about the introduction of Franklin and how it might affect Schulz' popularity. Many newspapers during that time had threatened to cut the strip.
In an interview with animation historian Michael Barrier, Schulz said:
"I remember telling [the executive at United Features] at the time about Franklin — he wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long while on the phone, and I finally sighed and said, "Well, Larry, let's put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How's that?"
Eventually, Franklin became a regular character in the comic strips, and, despite complaints, Franklin would be shown sitting in front of Peppermint Patty at school and playing center field on her baseball team.
More recently, Franklin is brought up on social media around Thanksgiving time, when the animated 1973 special "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" appears. Some people have blamed Schulz for showing Franklin sitting alone on the Thanksgiving table, while the other characters sit across him. Schulz defenders say he was much too busy with his daily strip and did not have the same control over the animated cartoon on a television network that he did on his own comic strip in the newspapers. Even online fact-checking source, Snopes, looked into the accusation and found it false based on further investigations.
In fact, Schulz was also the one who reportedly told CBS to add Franklin to the Charlie Brown cast. Black journalist Jeremy Helligar also noted, "A relevant aside: During the farewell dinner about one hour and five minutes into 1972’s 'Snoopy Come Home,' Franklin was seated on the same side of the table as Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Frieda — in a regular chair.
Schulz, however, did have control over his own comic strip, and, he courageously decided to make a statement because of one brave school teacher who decided to ask a simple question.
Glickman explained later that her parents were "concerned about others, and the values that they instilled in us about caring for and appreciating everyone of all colors and backgrounds — this is what we knew when we were growing up, that you cared about other people . . . And so, during the years, we were very aware of the issues of racism and civil rights in this country [when] black people had to sit at the back of the bus, black people couldn’t sit in the same seats in the restaurants that you could sit . . . Every day I would see, or read, about black children trying to get into school and seeing crowds of white people standing around spitting at them or yelling at them . . . and the beatings and the dogs and the hosings and the courage of so many people in that time."
Because of Glickman, because of Schulz, people around the world were introduced to a little boy named Franklin, and even today, when Franklin is mentioned, fond memories are evoked, such as those like the young, black man, who with tears in his eyes, started running and screaming throughout the house because he was introduced to Franklin for the first time.
Barbara Brandon-Croft, the first African American woman to have a nationally syndicated comic strip in the mainstream press, was 10 years old in 1968, said, “I remember feeling affirmed by seeing Franklin in Peanuts. ‘There’s a little black kid! Thank goodness! We do matter.’”
Another Peace Page reader commented, "I normally don't comment on Facebook but I feel compelled to now. As a black child growing up in the 70's and 80's U grew up in mostly white neighborhoods. One of the most difficult things at that time is my sense of where I belonged in the world. I didn't have anybody in my position i could relate to on TV or in the movies. Then I started reading Peanut cartoons and I met Franklin and I saw myself for once. As a character, Franklin was so important to me I named my third son after him. thank you Charles Schulz for helping me find my place."
Ms. Glickman still visits the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, which is two blocks away from Schulz' former studio, and she is fondly called "Franklin's Mom."
When she saw this Peace Page post, she commented on the Peace Page, "It's always a joy for me to share the Franklin story. I consider him my fourth child and he is very much loved."
About the Author
Jon S. Randal is a writer, whose "The Jon S. Randal Peace Page" on Facebook, features stories which share awareness of events in history, pop culture, and literature and celebrates individuals, known and unknown, past and present, whose words and courage foster understanding and promotes peace. The mission of the Peace Page is to educate, inform, and bring people together.