PHILADELPHIA — For those of us who grew up reading “Peanuts,” the iconic comic strip from the late Charles Schulz, the antics of Charlie Brown, his sister Sally, and his friends, the blanket-toting Linus, his crabby, football-snatching sister Lucy, piano virtuoso Schroeder, and Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s beagle (and World War I Flying Ace) were a part of what made our childhoods fun.
But while Charlie Brown was a kid who managed to maintain a kind heart despite almost always being the butt of the joke, he also lived in a world that was pretty much white.
On Sunday, as part of the NAACP’s national convention in Philadelphia, Harriet Glickman, the woman who inspired Charles Schulz to create the character Franklin, shared her story of integrating the Peanuts Universe as part of a chat at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. She was joined by actor Mar Mar Tidbit, who will be lending his voice to the character of Franklin in 20th Century Fox’s upcoming film “The Peanuts Movie.”
After the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, Glickman, then a special education teacher in California, decided that it might be time for Charlie Brown and company to make a new friend, a friend that might help move the country toward the beloved community the slain Civil Rights leader was working toward, she said.
“I wrote to Charles Schulz and suggested to him that he put a black character in `Peanuts,'” she said.
At first, Schulz was hesitant. He thought that a character of color would be a good idea, but he was concerned about whether or not he could do it justice.
But Glickman wasn’t taking no for an answer. She reached out to friends who were black and had children. She encouraged them to write to Schulz and make their feelings known.
On July 31, 1968, America met Franklin, a black kid who brought Charlie Brown the beach ball his sister Sally had thrown into the ocean. The two boys then built a sand castle, talked about baseball, and shared stories of family and friends like any two kids would. He was just one of the gang.
That, Glickman says, was the point.
“I thought that every kid should be able to pick up the comics and see themselves,” she said. “They should be able to see their friends. They should be able to see what their schools look like.”
While the reaction to Franklin was mostly positive, Schulz did have problems with Southern papers and with the syndication house that distributed “Peanuts” when it came to the subject of integrated classrooms, Glickman said.
To his credit, Schulz handled the criticism like a man who was the creator of an iconic cartoon.
“Schulz told them that if they changed the strip, he’d quit,” Glickman said. “They left the strips alone.”
Franklin, who went to school across town with characters Peppermint Patty and Marcie, made his television debut as a member of the “Peanuts” gang in the special “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” in 1973. For Glickman, who has collected Franklin memorabilia ranging from stuffed animals to t-shirts, it was a proud moment.
“It was as if I saw one of my kids on television,” she said. “It was wonderful to see.”
While Franklin was the first black child in the “Peanuts” Universe, he wasn’t the last. In 1976, three years after Franklin’s television debut, Schulz created another character, a toddler named Milo, as part of a diverse group called “The Goose Eggs.”
But while Franklin stood out as a character in the late 1960s, his presence might not even get noticed these days.
“Now when I look at the comic strips in the LA Times, I see at least five comic strips with Black characters,” Glickman said. “One of the strips, `Stone Soup,’ has a mom, and a little boy, who are white, and the mom’s boyfriend who is black. They’re about to get married, their families are there, and no one even notices.”
“The Peanuts Movie” premieres on Nov. 6.