*We all know the kids in the Peanuts universe — Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus et al. We even know the animals (if you can call Snoopy and Woodstock animals!). However, we never got to know the adults in the strip, as teachers and the kids’ parents were always “off camera” so to speak. In the animated specials, even their voices were reduced to audio flares from a trumpet (“Waah Waah Waah!!!).
I just got to know the mom of Franklin Armstrong, Charlie Brown’s African American buddy. Franklin’ s mother is a white retired school teacher who talked Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz into integrating the classic comic strip.
It was 1968, and in the recent wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Harriet Glickman had been asking herself what might be done — or, more accurately, what she might do — to make a difference in a world that had prematurely taken Dr. King from us. As a teacher and a mother of three, Glickman decided that reaching children was the way to go. Just eleven days after Dr. King’s assassination, she wrote letters to Schultz and other popular cartoonists, making a case for introducing African American — then, Negro — characters into their strips.
A copy of the original letter is below.
“I couldn’t have been living for so many years and absorbing what was going on with the racism in the country, and the civil rights movement, and the marches, and the dogs, and the firehoses, and not have that experience become a part of me as I watched,” Glickman, 88, told me by phone. “Growing up, my parents taught my sister and I about the importance of all people, and the respect and care for others.”
“Someone asked me recently whether I was an activist,” Glickman continued. “I don’t know that I was ever an activist. I was a person with a conscience. At one point, you just sort of explode and say ‘I have to do something.”
Glickman was delighted to receive a written reply from Schulz a couple of weeks later, although it wasn’t the response for which she’d hoped.
Here is the original response letter from Schultz
“…I am faced with the same problem that other cartoonists are who wish to comply with your suggestion,” Schulz wrote. “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.”
While many might have given up, Glickman was undeterred. She wrote Schultz back, urging him to reconsider.
I asked Glickman why she didn’t just throw in the towel after Schulz told her he wasn’t going to integrate the strip.
“I guess whatever fire was within me wouldn’t die,” Glickman recalled. “The fact that he had responded gave me a sense that he was uncertain in his decision, and maybe I picked up on that.”
In her follow-up letter, Glickman asked Shultz for permission to share his concerns with African American friends of hers, who subsequently sent letters of support to Schulz. Months later, on July 31, 1968, Franklin met Charlie Brown on the beach, and the Peanuts strip got a little more colorful.
There was some push-back from publishers — and readers — after Franklin’s debut. A group of southern papers wrote Schulz and demanded that Franklin not be shown in classrooms with his white counterparts, as their communities were dealing contentiously with school desegregation. According to documents at the Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center, the legendary cartoonist received “…the strongest criticism I remember…” in the wake of Franklin’s introduction to the strip. “There weren’t many letters, but they were quite vehement,” Schulz wrote. However, Schulz refused to back away from his and Glickman’s vision for Franklin.
I recall Franklin showing up in his first animated incarnation in 1973 in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”. As innocuously as he’d shown up in the newspaper strip, Franklin was simply introduced as a friend of Peppermint Patty’s as they headed to Charlie Brown’s house for dinner, but it was a big deal in my house. As hard as it may be to believe, except for a stray Pussycat of Josie’s, there were no black animated characters on television at the time.
Franklin remained a fixture in the Peanuts comic strip until 1999, just before Schulz’ death in 2000. I’m told he’s featured prominently in the upcoming Peanuts feature film, to be released November 6th.
“I’ve met Mar Mar, the little boy who voices Franklin, and he is perfect,” Glickman excitedly told me. “He looks like Franklin, he’s charming, he’s adorable, he’s smart. We just fell in love with each other. I’m his other mother!”
I can understand Mar Mar — I sort of fell in love with Glickman as we talked!
As we wrapped up, Glickman told me that the entire saga is a reminder of a message she repeatedly delivered to her own children — and grandchildren — as they were growing up.
“Everybody can make a difference,” she shared, “even if it’s a very small difference. Sometimes we have the feeling that the world is so overwhelmingly dreadful, and there are so many ways we’d like to help. You just have to pick out a piece that you can handle, and make a difference.”–Harriet Glickman