Commentary – Marathons begin with a single step

Chris Clegg

Regular readers of my commentaries know I am a huge Peanuts fan. To escape the doldrums and anxieties of life, I pick up a book and read Charlie Brown. I can read the same comic strips 100 times and still laugh.

Last week I picked up two new books that detail the history of the strip. The story regarding the introduction of Franklin on July 31, 1968 is fascinating and is still viewed today as controversial.

Thank goodness the genius of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz was overlooked by many for what Franklin added to the strip: wisdom and laughter.

Franklin, of course, was a Negro. I use Negro only because it was the term used during that time period. He was the only Negro in the strip.

On April 4, 1968, an important world event occurred. The assassination of Martin Luther King. It set off a chain of events where Franklin was created.

A Los Angeles schoolteacher named Harriet Glickman wrote to Schulz April 15 [only 11 days after King’s death] and said she felt the comic strip could be used to bridge the gap and change attitudes of people toward each other.

“It occurred to me today that the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters could happen with a minimum of impact.”

Schulz responded April 26.

“. . .but I am faced with the same problem that other cartoonists are who wish to comply with your suggestion. We all would like very much to do this, but each of us is afraid that it would look like we were patronizing our Negro friends.”

Glickman wrote back April 27.

“You present an interesting dilemma. I would like your permission to use your letter to show some Negro friends. Their response as parents may prove useful to you in your thinking on this subject.”

Schulz was leery.

“The more I think of the problem, I am convinced it would be wrong for me to do so,” he wrote May 9. “I would be very happy to try, but I am sure that I would receive the sort of criticism that would make it appear as I were doing this on a condescending manner.”

An unnamed Negro father wrote Schulz it would be a small price to pay and so much positive would result.

“It would ease my problem of having my kids seeing themselves pictured in the overall American scene. Secondly, it would suggest racial amity in a casual day-to-day scene.”

Schulz was convinced. Franklin was born and the inevitable criticism began. One southern editor wrote Schulz, “I don’t mind you having a black character, but please don’t show them in school together.”

Remember, this was the late 1960s. And it was the south.

“I didn’t even answer him,” wrote Schulz.

As any Peanuts fan knows, Franklin did not evolve into one of the main characters. I think we all know why. Naysayers accused Schulz of adding Franklin for political reasons. Schulz insisted Franklin was introduced as a normal character. Many newspapers threatened to cut the strip. Eventually, people realized Schulz was telling the truth.

I remember one strip [Nov. 6, 1974] that would cause an uproar in today’s world. The comic strip shows Peppermint Patty practicing her skating while Franklin is busy practicing hockey to become “a great hockey player.”

“How many black players in the NHL, Franklin?” she asks.

Comics can be a powerful tool in changing attitudes. If children read that whites and blacks can get along in a comic strip, why not in real life?

We have a long way to go since 1968 in improving race relations. At the very least, we can give Schulz credit for trying.

Share this post