August 1st, 2018 – Franklin made his way onto the Peanuts comic strip 50 years ago, but Charlie Brown wouldn’t have made his new friend had it not been for a retired school teacher. Up until 1968, Charles Schulz had created wildly popular characters for readers to see when they flipped through their newspapers – characters that were all white.
1968 was also the year that Martin Luther King was assassinated. 11 days after that tragedy, Harriet Glickman, a white, retired teacher raising three kids in Los Angeles, knew she had to do something to help heal racial divides in the country. So she decided to write to Mr. Schulz. Being a teacher and a mother of three, she thought giving the next generation something positive to see in popular entertainment would help create social change.
“In thinking over the areas of the mass media which are of tremendous importance in shaping the unconscious attitudes of our kids, I felt that something could be done through our comic strips and even in that violent jungle of horrors known as Children’s Television,” she wrote on April 15th, 1968.
“Sitting alone in California suburbis makes it all seem so easy and logical,” she continued. “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 that can withstand a great deal.”
Glickman seemed to know her audience well, receiving a letter back from Schulz within a couple of weeks applauding the idea but sharing some hesitations.
As a white man, Schulz struggled to introduce a black character without it coming across as condescending or patronizing. Glickman had written to several cartoonists, and while she didn’t hear back from many of them, the ones she did echoed similar concerns. Allen Saunders, who drew “Mary Worth,” expressed his desire to create a black character but feared his syndicate would drop him.
Undeterred, Glickman continued to write to Schulz and asked him if she could share his letters with some of her African American friends who were also parents. With the guidance of more readers, the famed cartoonist got to work. A few weeks later, a more hopeful letter arrived.
“You will be pleased to know that I have taken the first step in doing something about presenting a Negro child in the comic strip during the week of July 29,” Schulz wrote to Glickman. “I have drawn an episode which I think will please you.”
On July 31st, 1968, Franklin Armstrong walked up to Charlie Brown on a beach and began a lifelong friendship.
Being the first often means being a target, and both Franklin and Schulz found themselves in that position. Many people cheered on the addition, but others made their feelings known about seeing the first minority character in a mainstream comic strip.
Schulz held strong, though, and used that stature and reputation that Glickman had called out to pushback against protestors.
“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,'” Schulz recalled in an interview with Michael Barrier. “[My editors] 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, and I remember telling [United Features president] Larry [Rutman] 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?’ So that’s the way that ended.”
Schulz’s inclusion, while upsetting to some white readers and publishers, was much more well-received than Hank Ketcham’s addition of Jackson to the Dennis the Menace comic strip. He was criticized for drawing an offensive image that reminded people of Little Black Sambo.
Glickman remained proud of Schulz’s determination and stayed close to the world of Peanuts. In 2015, she joined a publicity tour for The Peanuts Movie. The woman who helped bring Franklin to life shared her experience with 12-year-old Marlier Walker, the voice actor who continued Franklin’s story in the latest film.