How the Peanuts Comic Strip Got its First Black Character
It was April of 1968, and the United States was in the grip of racial turmoil such as it had seldom seen before. On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot as he stood on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In response, riots had broken out in more than a hundred American cities. The outlook for racial harmony in the country looked bleak.
But some important positive events were taking place that month as well. On April 11, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which made housing discrimination based on race unlawful. And on April 15, a white Los Angeles schoolteacher, the mother of three, sat down to write a letter to a cartoonist.
A suburban schoolteacher tries to improve race relations
That schoolteacher, Harriet Glickman, was disturbed by the racial upheaval that was shaking the country, and wanted to do something about “the vast sea of misunderstanding, fear, hate and violence” that caused it. She believed that at a time when whites and blacks looked distrustfully at one another from across a wide racial divide, anything that could help narrow that gap could provide an immensely positive service to the nation.
So, she wrote a letter to Charles M. Schulz, author of the Peanuts comic strip. Syndicated in hundreds of newspapers around the country, Peanuts was the most popular and influential newspaper comic strip in history, read by millions of people every day. The outlook of many of those millions was inevitably influenced by their daily vicarious excursions into the world of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty, and the rest of the Peanuts gang. But since the inception of the strip in 1950, that world had been exclusively white.
Harriet Glickman thought that needed to change. She was convinced that with the cultural clout enjoyed by the Peanuts strip, if it portrayed white and black kids interacting amicably together, that would set a positive tone that could help reshape the perceptions of whites and blacks toward one another in the real world. In a letter that is now displayed in an exhibit at the Charles Schulz museum, she said:
It occurred to me today that the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters could happen with a minimum of impact. The gentleness of the kids…even Lucy, is a perfect setting…
I’m sure one doesn’t make radical changes in so important an institution without a lot of shock waves from syndicates, clients, etc. You have, however, a stature and reputation which can withstand a great deal.
Charles Schulz responds sympathetically but negatively to the idea of adding a black character to Peanuts
Perhaps surprisingly, Charles Schulz replied quickly to Glickman’s request. On April 26, he sent her the following note:
Dear Mrs. Glickman:
Than you very much for your kind letter. I appreciate your suggestion about introducing a Negro child into the comic strip, but I am faced with the same problem that other cartoonists are who wish to comply with your suggestion. We all would like very much to be able to do this, but each of us is afraid that it would look like we were patronizing our Negro friends.
I don’t know what the solution is.
Far from being discouraged by Schulz’s negative reply, Harriet Glickman saw in it a ray of hope. She wrote again to Schulz, asking for permission to show his letter to some of her African American friends and get their reaction. “Their response may prove useful to you in your thinking on this subject,” she wrote. Schulz replied,
I will be very anxious to hear what your friends think of my reasons for not including a Negro character in the strip. The more I think of the problem, the more I am convinced that it would be wrong for me to do so. I would be very happy to try, but I am sure that I would receive the sort of criticism that would make it appear as if I were doing this in a condescending manner.
Glickman must have been elated at Schulz’s willingness to at least consider including black characters in his strip. She had also contacted another nationally syndicated cartoonist, Allen Saunders, who wrote the Mary Worth strip. Saunders believed 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.” Against that background, Schulz’s openness to at least thinking about inserting a black character into his strip must have been refreshing.
A determined Harriet Glickman overcomes Schulz’s qualms
Glickman contacted several African American friends, and secured letters that she forwarded to Schulz. One mother of two wrote:
At this time in history, when Negro youths need a feeling of identity; the inclusion of a Negro character even occasionally in your comics would help these young people to feel it is a natural thing for Caucasian and Negro children to engage in dialogue.
True to his word, Schulz thought about what the letter writers had to say, and was reassured. On July 1 he wrote to Glickman to inform her that he had taken “the first step,” and that the strips published during the week of July 29 would have something “I think will please you.”
That week the comic strip featured a story line in which Charlie Brown’s sister Sally had thrown his beach ball into the sea. Then something that was, for the time, radical and ground breaking occurred:
His name was Franklin. And he came into the strip without fanfare, and without any notice or comment concerning his race. He and Charlie Brown struck up a friendship just like any two kids who meet on the beach might do.
It turns out that Franklin lives in a different neighborhood on the other side of town. Interestingly, he goes to the same school as Peppermint Patty, and plays center field on her baseball team. So, he and Charlie Brown find that they have a lot in common. They have such a good time together on the beach that Charlie Brown invites Franklin to come and stay overnight at his house. “We’ll play baseball, and build another sand castle,” Charlie tells him.
Before reading this, had you ever noticed Franklin in the Peanuts strip?
Franklin’s advent causes a reaction
Although Schulz did everything he could to keep Franklin’s introduction into the strip as low key as possible, people definitely took notice. Newspapers and magazines featured articles about the new Peanuts kid. Most reactions were positive, but some were decidedly negative.
November 12, 1969
United Feature Syndicate
220 East 42nd Street
New York, N.Y. 10017
In today’s “Peanuts” comic strip Negro and white children are portrayed together in school.
School integration is a sensitive subject here, particularly at this time when our city and county schools are under court order for massive compulsory race mixing.
We would appreciate it if future “Peanuts” strips did not have this type of content.
Said Schulz in an interview,
I finally put Franklin in, and there was one strip where Charlie Brown and Franklin had been playing on the beach, and Franklin said, “Well, it’s been nice being with you, come on over to my house some time.” Again, they didn’t like that. Another editor protested once when Franklin was sitting in the same row of school desks with Peppermint Patty, and said, “We have enough trouble here in the South without you showing the kids together in school.” But I never paid any attention to those things.
Some Southern newspapers refused to run the strips featuring Franklin, and that made the cartoon’s distributor nervous.
Let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?— Charles Schulz
Schulz recalled a conversation he had with Larry Rutman, president of the United Features syndicate.
I remember telling Larry at the time about Franklin—he wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long while on the phone, and I finally sighed and 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?”
The negative reactions to the new Peanuts kid were ironic because Schulz very deliberately did not focus attention on Franklin’s race. Charlie Brown never seemed to notice that Franklin was black. The only time race was ever mentioned in the strip, as far as I’m aware, was this episode (November 6, 1974) with Peppermint Patty:
Some people took Peppermint Patty’s jibe about the lack of black players in professional hockey as some kind of racist expression. To me it’s just the opposite. Patty feels comfortable expressing a perceived fact of life that she can use in her dispute with Franklin, but it’s not intended as a putdown toward him as a person.
A different, cruder approach
In his handling of race, Schulz was far more subtle (and a lot more sensitive) than, for example, Hank Ketcham, the writer of the Dennis the Menace strip. Ketcham’s May 13, 1970 cartoon, intended, as he said, “to join the parade led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” offered a character deliberately modeled on Little Black Sambo. In that depiction, Ketcham demonstrated an almost unbelievable lack of awareness of how offensive such an image would be to African Americans:
Many newspapers refused to run Ketcham’s cartoon, and some of those that did, like the Cleveland Press, were forced to issue an apology the next day.
VIDEO: Here's Franklin!
As he feared, Schulz is criticized as being condescending
Though Franklin was in no sense offensive in the way Ketcham's Sambo image was, Schulz didn’t escape criticism from some African Americans and others. Not because Franklin represented some negative stereotype, but because he was too good.
In contrast with the other characters, Franklin has the fewest anxieties and obsessions.— Charles Schulz
Schulz understood the tightrope he had to walk because of earlier offensive portrayals of blacks in the media. So he made a deliberate choice not to give Franklin any of the negative traits that plagued the other Peanuts characters. “Franklin is thoughtful and can quote the Old Testament as effectively as Linus. In contrast with the other characters, Franklin has the fewest anxieties and obsessions,” he said.
To some critics, having an African American character who was virtually perfect was patronizing. As Berkeley Professor John H. McWhorter put it, “Schulz meant well. But Franklin was a classic token black.”
But Clarence Page, an African American columnist for the Chicago Tribune was, in my opinion, more perceptive:
Let's face it: His perfection hampered Franklin's character development…
But considering the hyper-sensitivities so many people feel about any matters involving race, I did not blame Schulz for treating Franklin with a light and special touch.
Can you imagine Franklin as, say, a fussbudget like Lucy? Or a thumb-sucking, security-blanket hugger like Linus? Or an idle dancer and dreamer like Snoopy? Or a walking dust storm like Pig Pen? Mercy. Self-declared image police would call for a boycott. If Schulz's instincts told him his audience was not ready for a black child with the same complications his other characters endured, he probably was right.
From a character perspective, Franklin is the best of the Peanuts troop. He is the only one who never criticizes or mocks Charlie Brown. And when he finds Peppermint Patty crying because she's being required to stop wearing her beloved sandals at school, Franklin’s sympathetic reaction is, “All I know is any rule that makes a little girl cry has to be a bad rule.” As one observer put it, “Franklin proved to be wise and dignified and has never done anything he should have to apologize for.” I think he can be forgiven those faults.
The addition of Franklin to the Peanuts family made a difference
Franklin was a recurring member of the Peanuts cast of characters for three decades. He would appear in a story line, then not be seen for a while. His last appearance in the strip was in 1999, the year before Schulz died and the strip ended (it's still going strong in reruns). But both in newspapers and in animated Peanuts specials on television, Franklin made his mark as a valued and beloved member of the Peanuts family. And just as Harriet Glickman hoped, by simply being there, one of the gang, no different from the others, he helped blacks and whites see one another with different eyes.
NOTE: In this critique of how a black character was added to the Peanuts comic strip, images from the strip (copyright Peanuts Worldwide LLC) are included under the Fair Use provisions of the Copyright code.
© 2015 Ronald E. Franklin