Let’s take a trip back to the past to learn about a very special character from the Peanuts comic strip and what he meant to a generation of African American children growing up in one of the most socially unstable times of US history.
The year was 1968 and the Civil Rights Activist Martin Luther King Jr. had just been shot on the 4th of April. The tension in society came to a boiling point that summer with race riots and civil unrest, a concept any Malaysian aware of our own history would be more than familiar with.
It was during this tumultuous time that a new character was introduced to the pages of the newspaper comic strip, Peanuts; the young African American boy, Franklin.
To give you guys a bit of context, the Peanuts comic was at the height of its popularity at the time and was being printed in hundreds of newspapers around America. It depicted the misadventures of a group of kids and Snoopy the dog, who is arguably their most recognizable face.
Creating Franklin at a time when America was close to a breaking point in racial tension was seen as a very bold and progressive move that earned the creator, Charles Schulz a lot of praise. The high level of visibility of the comic meant that the image of a young African American boy befriending and playing with these beloved comic strip characters was seen far and wide. It was a very welcome step towards normalizing the idea of racial harmony in America at the time.
While we celebrate Franklin’s 50th birthday, it is also important to give credit to the woman whose letter inspired the character. Her name was Harriet Glickman and she was a teacher and mother of three from Los Angeles who wrote a letter to Schulz.
“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, fear, hate and violence,” she said in her letter, which is now publicly displayed in the Charles M. Schulz Museum in California.
This began a back and forth of letters between Schulz and Glickman where in he expressed his desire to do something but worried that it might come off as patronizing. Glickman urged him to carry on, offering to run any ideas by members of her local African American community to see what they thought.
All of this eventually culminated in a comic published in the July 31 edition of newspapers around the country where Charlie Brown loses his ball at the beach, only to have it be returned by a young African American boy; Franklin.
The comic is rather simple and innocuous by today’s standards but it is now venerated as a trailblazing moment in comic strip history. One can only imagine what went through its creator and the various publishers as they sent it out to print during one of the most racially charged summers ever.
Add to this, the fact that the main audience of newspaper comic strips was the white middle class in America. This was a move that was fraught with risk.
Luckily, this story has a happy ending. Franklin was generally well-received and soon became just another character in the roster of fun characters that made up the Peanuts comic. He had adventures with the rest of the cast for years, subtly showing kids (and parents) all across America that different kinds of people could be friends and that it was ok.
With that, we wish Franklin a very happy 50th birthday. We’ve come a long way since he was created, and we still have a long way to go. But there’s no denying that today’s world is a better place than yesterday’s one, and here’s hoping that tomorrow’s world will be better still!
Header Image Source: Ebony Magazine