If you’ve ever checked out a Peanuts comic strip that ran after July 31, 1968, then you’ve seen him. He’s the little Black boy with the curly flattop, pleasant smile and sensible name that was one of Charlie Brown’s good friends. He’s Franklin Armstrong, and for many, he’s the character that made Black kids (and adult readers alike who looked like him) feel confirmed that yes, “we” are represented amongst the beloved little kids collectively called, simply, Peanuts.
But Franklin wasn’t always there, artfully drawn by Charles Schulz within the interrelated horizontal panels that made up his iconic strip. He didn’t exist before July 31, 1968. And it took the act of one woman—a White school teacher named Harriet Glickman, who wanted to do her part in the fight for racial equality in America at the time, igniting something in Schulz to create the little brown child we’ve come to know and love ever since.
It was one thoughtful act, a simple yet provoking letter imploring the cartoonist to consider creating a Black character. It was well past the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, a ruling that lead to the desegregation of all schools. However some, especially in the South, remained segregated. The country was still in the throes of the civil rights era and reeling from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I was a Peanuts fan,” explains Glickman. “But at the same time, I was someone who read the news a lot, kept up with politics and so on. This was right after the murder of Dr. King, and I had that feeling: ‘What can I do? Can I do anything?’ And I got the idea of writing to some cartoonists, because I felt that Black kids at that time never saw themselves in the [comic] strips or in many other places. And certainly the world of TV was very different then.”
So she decided to write a letter asking Charles Schulz to consider putting a Black child in his popular comic strip. She promptly received what she referred to as a “very nice” response saying that he appreciated the thought but felt that Black parents would find it patronizing. She went about rounding up letters from some of her Black friends who were parents countering Schulz’s assumption. And after a bit of correspondence back and forth, Glickman received a letter from Schulz saying that he would indeed create a Black character.
On July 31, 1968, 47 years ago tomorrow, Franklin appeared for the first time—meeting Charlie Brown at the beach where the two built a sand castle together, and became lifelong friends.
Undoubtedly, a monumental addition like that to the famous Peanuts comic strip in 1968 didn’t come without some positive and negative responses, as Glickman tells it.
Whoopi Goldberg and Al Roker were among those who wrote childhood letters of support to Schulz, saying it was nice to see themselves represented in the strip. But on the other hand, several papers chose not to run the series, including the Meridian Star in Mississippi, which demanded the cartoonist not send any more strips with Black and White children sitting in a classroom together. He even got pushback from his own editor, to which Schulz replied, “either you print it as I draw it or I quit,” according to Glickman.
Franklin never went away. And now he’s headed to the big screen along with America’s favorite blockhead Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and the rest of the gang, in a theatrical film featuring the iconic characters appropriately titled The Peanuts Movie.
Thirteen-year-old, Compton-bred Mar Mar will voice Franklin in the film, and says that prior to being cast, he had no knowledge of just how important his character’s origin truly was.
“I think it’s a real honor because I don’t really have to go through the whole Black vs. White thing,” he says. “We’re all just together. And to know that my character Franklin was out during a really hard time in our nation’s history is just a real honor.”
Mar Mar reveals that just like Franklin and the other Peanuts who love to get their dance on when they hear music, he’s got moves too and has created a dance called the Charlie Brown. He also says that Franklin will be seen liberally throughout The Peanuts Movie doling out precious advice to he’s buddy Chuck.
“He’s there to consult Charlie Brown, to have a friend to talk to, a shoulder to lean on. Like when he’s feeling down, even though he’s always feeling down. Just to talk about what he’s done, like not being able to fly a kite and stuff like that,” according to Mar Mar.
The Peanuts Movie director Steve Martino has been tight lipped about the storyline of the film, but Mar Mar reveals that, while it’s been tradition that Charlie Brown never wins, we may be surprised this time around. Scoop!
As for Harriet Glickman, who’s the reason that Franklin even exists today, she was able to meet Mar Mar for the first time earlier this month. “When I saw him,” Glickman said, “I started to cry, because he’s exactly what I pictured for Franklin. And as it turns out, he’s just the same wonderful boy.”
Catch Franklin in The Peanuts Movie when it hits theaters November 6.
Crystal Shaw King is a seasoned TV, radio and online entertainment writer. She’s also a contributing editor for a social justice foundation in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @crystalamberbam.