Franklin was the first African-American character to appear in the iconic “Peanuts” strip.
In 2018, the push for more equal representation in popular culture is still a struggle.
But 50 years ago, legendary “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz made history when he introduced “Franklin,” the first black character to appear in his Charlie Brown universe.
He was an immediate hit and his influence is still resonating today.
In a post on the Jon S. Randal Peace Page, laid out the significance clearly:
“On July 31, 1968, a young, black man was reading the newspaper when he saw something that he had never seen before. With tears in his eyes, he started running and screaming throughout 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.”
The opening strip showing Franklin’s arrival is simple but poignant.
He is seen simply offering his hand to Linus and saying, “Hi … I’m Franklin,” to which Linus replies, “I’m very glad to know you.”
Without saying much in the actual words, Schulz was saying everything in tone and intention: Kids often understand the world better than their adult counterparts and they get that race, gender and other forms of identity should not be barriers keeping us apart.
In fact, in an interview years later, Schulz said he only received a few complaints about the character, including from a Southern newspaper editor who didn’t like that Franklin was sitting in the front of other white characters in a racially integrated school.
“I didn’t even answer him” Schulz said.
Schulz created Franklin at the urging of a teacher who wrote him letters.
Los Angeles based high-school teacher Harriet Glickman wrote to Schulz asking him to introduce a black character into his strip.
It was the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and racial tensions in America were at their peak.
While she didn’t think introducing a black character would change everything, she knew it would make a difference. What ensued was a series of back and forth letters between Schulz and Glickman, where she laid out the significance:
“I’m sure one doesn’t make radical changes in so important an institution without a lot of shock waves from syndicates, clients, etc,” she wrote. “You have, however, a stature and reputation which can withstand a great deal.”
Half a century ago, we saw how much representation matters. It still matters today.
It seems simple and obvious in hindsight but Glickman convinced Schulz to do something fairly revolutionary at the time: not only introducing a black character but one whom was just part of the Peanut gang.
That sense of normalcy can make all the difference to marginalized groups.
Of course, Franklin isn’t perfect. Chris Rock once famously joked on “Saturday Night Live” that the character hadn’t spoken a line of dialogue in 25 years.
Still, there’s no denying the significance his introduction had and how it helped create a blueprint for greater inclusion across the board in years to come.
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