Charles M. Schulz in 1978 (AP)
Nowadays we are beginning to have a larger understanding of the importance of representation in media.
But, of course, that wasn't always the case. This is the story of Charles M. Shulz, and the character of Franklin – the first Black character to be introduced to the cartoon.
It was 1968. Desegregation was well underway, but racial tension was still at an all time high. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated. Months after, illustrator and creator of the Peanuts comics, Charles M. Shulz introduced Franklin – the comic strip's first Black character. Only a decade earlier, U.S. Federal troops had escorted a small group of Black students to meet their white classmates in a school in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was time that this change be reflected in the lives of the Peanuts characters, too.
When Franklin walked onto the pages of Peanuts, many fans were upset.
When Franklin was first shown with his white peers, some comic strip readers reacted badly to the new character. Many of the editors of the comics protested. In an interview with Mr. Shulz, he said that an "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 one reader was beyond excited: Harriet Glickman, a mother of three from Los Angeles.
In April that year, (before Franklin was introduced) she wrote to Schulz:
“Since the death of Martin Luther King, I’ve been asking myself what I can do to help change those conditions in our society which led to the assassination and which contribute to the vast sea of misunderstanding, fear, hate and violence.”
She asked for the “introduction of Negro children” into the Peanuts world:
“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.”
Schulz quickly wrote back. He was enthusiastic, but worried that the introduction of a Black character would come off as patronizing.
"You present an interesting dilemma," Glickman responded. She offered to talk to some of her Black friends to gain further perspective.
Schulz was excited, but remained trepidatious. What if he seemed condescending?
After much correspondence, Schulz wrote a very exciting letter to Glickman...
Franklin debuted in the July 31 strip as a boy Charlie Brown met on the beach. According to Corry Kanzenberg, curator of the Scholz Museum, it was very unusual for Shulz to listen and respond to the suggestions of fans. This time, though, Schulz knew it was the right thing to do.
Franklin is known to be less anxious than the other Peanuts characters. He is kind to Charlie, and never criticizes or mocks him. Some have argued that the blandness of Franklin’s character is indeed patronizing, but others found it refreshing.
Glickman said in an interview that she had no idea what kind of impact she would make with her letter to Schulz. But after King’s death, she says, “You wanted to do something: you felt powerless in a situation like that. I thought, ‘This might be a nice little idea.'”
Thank you, Ms. Glickman.
Images courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, Santa Rosa, California