Art Has the Power to Unite

Art Has the Power to Unite  
Art Has the Power to Unite

On July 31, 1968, a young African-American boy was looking at the newspaper when he saw something that he had never seen before. With tears in his eyes, he started running through 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 in the iconic comic strip Peanuts. Franklin was ‘born’ after a school teacher named Harriet Glickman, had written a letter to creator Charles M. Schulz after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot to death outside his Memphis hotel room in April of 1968.  Glickman, who had kids of her own, and having worked with kids, 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 would say.

She would write, ‘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 would 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 might seem condescending to people of color.

Glickman did not give up, and continued communicating with Schulz, with Schulz responding each time. This conversation would continue for three months until one day, Schulz would tell 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.’

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. Schulz’ response: ‘I remember telling Larry about Franklin. He wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long time on the phone, and I finally 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 strip, and, despite complaints, Franklin would be shown sitting in front of Peppermint Patty at school and playing center field on her baseball team.

Because of one brave school teacher who decided to ask a simple question, and because of one artist named Charles Schulz, people around the world were introduced to a little boy named Franklin.

From the Jon S. Randal Peace Page

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