Crossing the Color Line (in Black and White): Franklin in “Peanuts”

Like many other venues in 1960s America, the comics page was essentially racially segregated. The diversification of the comics required the mainstream acceptance of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts and the persistent idealism of one of its readers. NAT GERTLER examines the circumstances surrounding the addition of color to the comics.

The year was 1968. The relationship between white Americans and African Americans were all over the newspapers, except for the funny pages. You might see white folks consorting with African natives in The Phantom or Tarzan, but the aggressively racially mixed Wee Pals was only in a handful of papers, and we didn’t even have Broom-Hilda yet to show us that green folks and purple folks could live together in relative harmony.

glickmanThat absence should not have surprised anyone. Progress was being made on race relations, but it was not coming quietly or smoothly. Integration was always accompanied by controversy, and controversy was not something that was courted on the comics page. Events came to a head on April 4, when an assassin took the life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Many saw that tragedy as a call for action, and among these was Harriet Glickman, a white schoolteacher and mother of three living in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Less than two weeks later, she wrote a letter to the most successful cartoonist of the day, Charles Schulz, suggesting that it was time to integrate that strip, noting that “the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters could happen with the minimum of impact.” Not content to seek a token appearance, she expressed the “hope that the result will be more than one black child…. Let them be as adorable as the others…but please…allow them a Lucy!”

Schulz's first letter to Glickman

Schulz’s first letter to Glickman (click to enlarge)

That request earned a personal reply from Schulz, who noted that such ideas had been discussed with fellow cartoonists, but that they were afraid that such character introductions would be seen as “patronizing our Negro friends.” Glickman seized on the apparent desire of Schulz to get past that point and sought his permission to run the concept past some of her own “Negro friends.” Schulz was eager to hear what their thoughts would be, but confessed that “the more I think of the problem, the more I am convinced it would be wrong to do so.” (Schulz was hardly alone in his reluctance. Glickman entered into a longer correspondence with Allen Saunders, then-writer of Mary Worth, who noted that the strip had formerly included black characters in supporting roles, generally doing menial work but depicted with dignity. He explained to her that “it is still impossible to put a Negro in a role of high professional importance and have the reader accept it as valid. And the militant Negro will not accept any member of his race now in any of the more humble roles in which we now regularly show whites. He too would be hostile and try to eliminate our product.”)

A subsequent Schulz letter to Glickman

A subsequent Schulz letter to Glickman (click to enlarge)

Glickman’s efforts to collect letters from her friends (and from then Los Angeles councilman Tom Bradley, who would later become mayor) were interrupted by another assassination, the June killing of Bobby Kennedy. Glickman chose to send along the two letters she had, both suggesting that the inclusion of black characters would not be seen as patronizing and could be a powerful effort to making calm relationships between children of different races seem normal. One letter called specifically for using black kids as “supernumeraries”—mere background characters to fill out crowd scenes—at least until the stage could be set and the time was right to bring one such character to the fore. (The writer, one Kenneth C. Kelly, noted that black supernumeraries were used regularly in movie prison scenes and other moments of unhappiness while seldom included in scenes of day-to-day life.)

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