Crossing the Color Line (in Black and White): Franklin in “Peanuts”
Glickman promised to send of more letters once they were completed, but she never had to do so; those two letters had won the cartoonist over. On July 1, Schulz sent her a brief note that he had taken “the first step,” which would see print during the week of July 29, and which “I think will please you.” That first step was the introduction of Franklin, an African-American boy.
Franklin’s introduction was part of a five-day sequence featuring Sally tossing away Charlie Brown’s beach ball and Franklin rescuing it. In some ways, this seems an aggressive bit of integration—many American public beaches, while no longer legally segregated, were still de facto segregated at the time. In other ways, the strips suggest what might be seen today as an excess of caution; of the twenty panels of the series, Franklin is in ten panels and Sally is in eight, but never is Franklin in the same panel as the white girl. Franklin would not reappear for another two and a half months, when he came for a visit to Charlie Brown’s neighborhood. He was somewhat lighter skinned here, which seems to be less a matter of trying to make him acceptable to the readers and more a matter of cutting back on shading lines which were overpowering his facial features. Franklin’s job in this series was to react to the oddness of the neighborhood kids, and that was a precursor to what would be his primary role in the strip as a whole. Perhaps due to excessive caution, Franklin was never granted any of the sort of usual quirks that define a Peanuts character, the very sort of mistake that Glickman was warning about when she called for one of the black kids to be “a Lucy.” Schulz may have had more to work with if he had listened to Bishop James P. Shannon, who had marched beside Martin Luther King in Selma; Shannon was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as wondering if the new Peanuts character would be “a believable human being who has some evident personal failing,” versus being “a perfect little black man.” But whatever failings (or problematic lack of failings) Franklin may have had, his appearance drew national media coverage, and made local comics page editors flinch.
For years, Franklin’s real role was to sit adjacent to Peppermint Patty in class and react to her oddness; after that role was ceded to the quirkier Marcy, he was without a key role. Eventually, Schulz tapped him for scenes where he and Charlie Brown would talk about their grandfathers. In the licensing realm, he appears largely in the role of a supernumerary; while there have been occasional Franklin items produced, he’s more likely to appear in a group shot on a t-shirt or packaging for a Peanuts product, making the line-up look more inclusive. (The recent A Charlie Brown Christmas action figure line featured the first Franklin action figure ever produced, which is particularly odd when one considers that Franklin was not in that particular TV special, which first aired years before he joined the strip.)
Glickman moved on to become a board member of the area’s Fair Housing Commission. She left the schoolteaching days behind and ended up working in the Southern California Association for Philanthropy. Now in her eighties, she has never left her concern for civil rights behind, nor did she leave behind Franklin, collecting what Franklin memorabilia is to be had. While the character may be blander than she might have hoped for, she is nonetheless proud. “I always refer to Franklin,” she admits, “as my fourth child.”
Nat Gertler is the writer of The Peanuts Collection (Little Brown, ISBN 978-0-316-08610-3, $35) and blogs about Peanuts books at blog.AAUGH.com. He would like to thank Harriet Glickman and David Folkman for making this story possible.
Note: This feature was originally published in Hogan’s Alley #18 (cover at right).