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Jerry Costello

A Comic Strip in Black and White
October 11, 2015

It was, more or less, a typical “Peanuts” comic strip. It featured Charlie Brown, of course, and it had a good punch line, drawn with the quiet wit of Charles M. Schulz. In the opening panel, Charlie is digging in the sand with a newfound friend and asks, “Is your whole family here at the beach, Franklin?” The friend answers no, his father is in Vietnam, and then, in the manner of little boys getting acquainted, wants to know if Charlie Brown likes to play baseball. Charlie replies that, if anything, he likes it too much. And in the final panel Franklin comes right out and asks, “Are you a good player?”, and Charlie answers him, “I have some friends who would regard that as a great topic for a panel discussion.”

                A typical “Peanuts” strip, as I said, with one notable exception: Franklin is black. The date was July 31, 1968, and just like that, “Peanuts” was integrated. Except that it didn’t happen “just like that.”

                Writer Don Cavna tells the story well in The Washington Post. It had begun, strangely enough, with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. several months earlier, in April of 1968. In Los Angeles, teacher Harriet Glickman, reaching out for a sign of hope, no matter how small, wrote to several comic-strip artists asking them to introduce black characters in their drawings.

                The replies she got were mostly non-committal, but Schulz wrote back and wondered if he could do so without unintended condescension. Glickman promised to take up the question with black friends, and subsequently replied to Schulz with the encouraging results.

                She was elated when Franklin was ushered into the script, only weeks later, as a “regular kid.” And that’s how he joined Linus, Lucy, and the rest of the crowd in the “Peanuts” gang—a “regular” kid who happened to be black. Not, in those days, that it was always that easy.

                For one thing, Schulz faced hesitation from his own agency, United Feature Syndicate, which asked him “Are you sure you want to do this?” The artist simply said, “Either you run it the way I drew it, or I quit.” The syndicate, fearful of losing the wildly popular “Peanuts,” quickly backed down. It was more or less the same with a group of editors, mostly from the South, who feared the effects of Schulz’s plans for “Peanuts” on the integration of schools in their communities. Take it or leave it, Schulz replied in effect. Most of them, aware of his favored status with readers, decided they’d take it. Before long, Franklin became a fixture—and a favorite, at that.

                The woman who’d started it all, Harriet Glickman, now 88, explained in a telephone interview with reporter Cavna the reason behind her move.

                “I realized that black kids and white kids never saw themselves in the classroom,” she said, and so she wrote to several syndicated strip cartoonists with her idea. Schulz, who replied promptly, turned out to be the one who most appreciated the point she had made. And before long, he went to work.

                Schulz died in 2000, but his work lives on. From time to time, Glickman still sees Franklin and the other “Peanuts” kids in cartoons reissued by the Los Angeles Times.

                “I just love them,” she told Cavna. “Franklin was, and is, my fourth child.”

 

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