A Charlie Brown Debut: Introduction to the First ‘Peanuts’ Member of Color

Franklin’s debut came only a while after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. To some, he seemed too ‘perfect’ and ‘bland’ of a character | Courtesy of Washington Post

Winner of the Spring 2019 StMU History Media Award for

Best Descriptive Article

Best Article in the Category of “Social History”

Many people are familiar with the lovable beagle Snoopy and the other members of Charles M. Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ comics. The series revolves around Charlie Brown, his friends, and the famous beagle, Snoopy. While Snoopy lives in a fantasy world where he consistently engages in aerial battle with the WWI Red Baron, Charlie Brown must deal with much of life’s disappointments, ranging from receiving rocks in his Halloween candy bag to being tormented by Lucy van Pelt.1 Snoopy has become a household name; the character has even appeared in popular clothing brands such as Levi’s, Vans, and BAGGU. In addition, there are multiple locations around the globe where Charlie Brown and his friends are celebrated. For example, there are museums in Tokyo and California dedicated to both Snoopy and Charles M. Schulz himself, and there’s the famous amusement park, Knott’s Berry Farm, that would later make the Charlie Brown characters a part of their addition. No doubt, the ‘Peanuts’ characters are one of the most well-known cartoon icons. Much of their popularity began in the 1950s; however, the year 1968 was an especially interesting year for the ‘Peanuts’ gang. It was the year Schulz gave way to the comic’s first black character, and the year Franklin Armstrong became part of the ‘Peanuts’ family. Although a small act, Franklin’s debut became a big step in normalizing integration and it marked Schulz as one of the most influential cartoonists of all time.2

The year 1968 was a big year not only for Schulz, but it was also a big year for the African American population, the Civil Rights movement, and much of the United States. On April 4 of that same year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His death was met with outrage, and it sparked multiple riots and protests throughout the nation. A few months later, Robert F. Kennedy, an advocate for equality and civil rights, was also assassinated. Just a few years prior to King’s and Kennedy’s death, there was the Little Rock Nine who made one of the first attempts towards desegregation in public white schools. As many had already predicted, the Little Rock Nine were not welcomed by white students, and were instead greeted through physical and verbal abuse.3 It’s hard to say the United States was making much progress towards equal rights and desegregation, but it was still making some attempts. One of these attempts was made by Schulz and a retired teacher who resided in Southern California, Harriet Glickman.4

Harriet Glickman was both a teacher and a mother of three children, and, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, felt the need to spark some sort of hope during such a dark and rough time. Glickman explains her motive in an interview, “I was thinking about Dr. King, and about having lived through so many years of struggles and the racism and the [divisiveness] that existed.”5 Having children of her own, Glickman recognized how powerful and impactful comics were at the time. She realized, however, that many young comic fans had yet to see any type of diversity in any of the comic strips. Glickman said, “And my feeling at the time was that I realized that black kids and white kids never saw themselves [depicted] together in the classroom.”6 With that in mind, Glickman made it a priority to pen letters to several cartoonists; she requested that they offer images of integration and diversity in their comic strips, and she suggested that they include a colored individual as one of their main characters.7

Initially, Schulz was hesitant in Franklin’s debut, mainly because he felt his release would be condescending to the African American race | Courtesy of USA Today

Glickman first got in touch with the author of the “Mary Worth” comic series, Allen Saunders. Both Saunders and his artist, Ken Ernst, thought that the idea of integration would be nice. However, they feared being dropped from the syndicate, telling Glickman that “it is still impossible to put a Negro in a role of high professional importance and have the reader accept it as valid…He too would be hostile and try to eliminate our product.”8 Unfortunately, Saunders and Ernst walked away from Glickman’s proposal. But Schulz wrote back to Glickman expressing interest in the idea. However, like Saunders and Ernst, he was also very hesitant in moving forward with Glickman’s vision, primarily because he did not want to integrate characters in the comics out of fear that he would sound condescending to the African American race. Glickman acted quickly upon Schulz’s response, telling him she thought it would be a good idea to consult with fellow African American friends and ask for their opinions on integration in the series. She turned to friends Kenneth Kelly and Monica Gunning; they themselves wrote to Schulz encouraging him to move forward with Glickman’s idea. In contrast to what Glickman originally visualized, Kelly expressed that it would be better to add a character of color who would merely stand in the background. In this manner, integration would be introduced slowly and gradually, instead of automatically pushing it to the front line. Shortly thereafter, Schulz wrote back to Glickman with his response, telling her that he had received Kelly and Gunning’s feedback, and he hinted that she would very much be amused with his next comic strip.9

Harriet Glickman writes a letter to Schulz urging him to incorporate Franklin in the comic strips, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr | Courtesy of ABC7News

Shortly before the release of his next comic strip, which featured Franklin, Schulz was asked by the head of the United Feature Syndicate if he was sure he wanted the story to be released. Schulz responded with more confidence than ever, telling him they could either release the strip as is or else he would quit. It’s important to know that the ‘Peanuts’ series had already gathered a large fanbase and was very popular at this time, having millions of fans and readers globally. The syndicate had no choice; they had to release the story, otherwise they would risk giving up an already famous and influential cartoonist.10

Schulz released his latest comic strip on July 31, 1968, and it was the day Franklin Armstrong made his debut in the series. Almost fifty years ago, Charlie Brown lost sight of his beach ball and it was later returned to him by the series’ first member of color. Following their encounter, the two friends returned to the seashore and built a sandcastle together.11

Franklin makes his first appearance in the comic strip, ‘Peanuts’ | Courtesy of NPR

Franklin’s debut broke racial barriers and was met with both praise and criticism, and much of the latter would come from the South. Many editors from the South sent messages to Schulz, and expressed that they did not want to see colored children interacting with white children, claiming that schools in the South were already going through a desegregation process. The process itself was already too heavy and controversial in the South, and seeing characters like Franklin in the newspaper was merely distasteful to Southerners.12

While some complained about the comic series introducing a member of color, others complained that Franklin was too bland and boring of a character in comparison to the rest of the ‘Peanuts’ gang. They argued that Franklin was ‘too perfect’ and did not have a defining characteristic much like how Charlie Brown is known for being reluctant and Lucy for being a bit snooty. Instead, Franklin was intelligent, very athletic, and overall, he was a good person. Despite his debut making a groundbreaking statement, he didn’t seem to meet the expectations of many. However, what many forget is that Schulz feared sounding patronizing or condescending in his creation of Franklin, and therefore had to be careful in how he characterized him.13

Regardless of the criticism Schulz received, the comic strip was successful in giving the African American population some representation and a place in society. This particularly rang true for Robb Armstrong, who was just six years old at the time of Franklin’s debut. Franklin’s appearance in the comic series was remarkable and touching for Armstrong, who had told his mother he wanted to be a cartoonist. He later became the creator of both Fearless: A Cartoonist’s Guide to Life and Jumpstart and even met Schulz after having sent the latter a comic strip of his own.14 A few year later, Schulz called Armstrong to ask if Franklin could bear the latter’s last name, having realized the character was only known as “Franklin.”15

Recently, in 2018, the ‘Peanuts’ series was met with outrage and was accused of racism because of a particular scene in the movie “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” The scene depicted Charlie Brown and his friends sitting around a table, with most of them sitting on one side of the table and Franklin sitting by his lonesome on the other side. Many viewers took this scene as a hint towards segregation. This backlash in itself is ironic, as the reason Franklin was introduced to begin with was to fight back against racism and to normalize integration, especially in schools. Without Glickman’s impulse on making a statement and Schulz’s confidence in his influence as a cartoonist, Franklin may not have ever existed to begin with. The people of today may point fingers at the series all they want, but no one can deny Franklin’s bittersweet backstory, Glickman and Schulz’s good intentions, nor the impact it would have on the many readers living in such a despairing time.

  1. Britannica, 2009, s.v. “Peanuts,” by Michael Ray.
  2. Stan Friedman, “50 Years Ago, Teacher Spurred Integration in ‘Peanuts’ Strip,” COV (blog), August 1, 2018, https://covenantcompanion.com/2018/08/01/50-years-ago-teacher-spurred-integration-in-peanuts-strip/.
  3. Ha Thu-Huong, “The Sweet Story Behind Peanuts’ Groundbreaking First Black Character,” Quartz, December 11, 2015, https://qz.com/571393/the-sweet-story-behind-peanuts-groundbreaking-first-black-character/.
  4. Kamp David, “Guess Who’s Coming to ‘Peanuts,’” The New York Times, January 13, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/13/opinion/sunday/peanuts-franklin-charlie-brown.html.
  5. Kavna Michael, “Franklin Integrated ‘Peanuts’ 47 Years Ago Today. Here’s How a Teacher Changed Comics History,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2015/07/31/franklin-integrated-peanuts-47-years-ago-today-heres-how-a-teacher-changed-comics-history/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.281dcb22ddaf.
  6. Kavna Michael, “Franklin Integrated ‘Peanuts’ 47 Years Ago Today. Here’s How a Teacher Changed Comics History,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2015/07/31/franklin-integrated-peanuts-47-years-ago-today-heres-how-a-teacher-changed-comics-history/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.281dcb22ddaf.
  7. Kavna Michael, “Franklin Integrated ‘Peanuts’ 47 Years Ago Today. Here’s How a Teacher Changed Comics History,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2015/07/31/franklin-integrated-peanuts-47-years-ago-today-heres-how-a-teacher-changed-comics-history/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.281dcb22ddaf.
  8. Tom Heintjes, “Crossing the Color Line (in Black in White): Franklin in “Peanuts”,” Hogan’s Alley, July 31, 2013, http://cartoonician.com/crossing-the-color-line-in-black-and-white-franklin-in-peanuts/.
  9. Wong Kevin, “Franklin Broke Peanuts’ Color Barrier In The Least Interesting Way Possible,” Kotaku (blog), July 31, 2018, https://kotaku.com/franklin-broke-peanuts-color-barrier-in-the-least-inter-1793843085.
  10. Kavna Michael, “Franklin Integrated ‘Peanuts’ 47 Years Ago Today. Here’s How a Teacher Changed Comics History,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2015/07/31/franklin-integrated-peanuts-47-years-ago-today-heres-how-a-teacher-changed-comics-history/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.281dcb22ddaf.
  11. Cecilia Lei and James Delahoussaye, “‘Peanuts’ First Black Character Franklin Turns 50,”NPR, July 29, 2018, http://www.npr.org/2018/07/29/633544308/peanuts-character-franklin-turns-50.
  12. Wong Kevin, “Franklin Broke Peanuts’ Color Barrier In The Least Interesting Way Possible,” Kotaku,July 31, 2018, https://kotaku.com/franklin-broke-peanuts-color-barrier-in-the-least-inter-1793843085.
  13. Wong Kevin, “Franklin Broke Peanuts’ Color Barrier In The Least Interesting Way Possible,” Kotaku,July 31, 2018, https://kotaku.com/franklin-broke-peanuts-color-barrier-in-the-least-inter-1793843085.
  14. Axelrod Jim, “The Surprising Story behind Franklin, the First Black “Peanuts” Character,” CBS News, August 02, 2018, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-surprising-story-behind-franklin-the-first-black-peanuts-character/.
  15. Cecilia Lei and James Delahoussaye, “‘Peanuts’ First Black Character Franklin Turns 50,”NPR, July 29, 2018, http://www.npr.org/2018/07/29/633544308/peanuts-character-franklin-turns-50.

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84 Responses

  1. I am huge fan of Charlie Brown, he has to be my absolute favorite and reading this really made me so happy to learn more about the history of the story. I had never known about the story of Peanuts but now that I am aware of it, I am very interested in the story between Schultz after he created Franklin. This was a very fascinating read and I am so happy that I now have more knowledge about the one and only Charlie Brown!

  2. This was a great descriptive article I didn’t really know all the details about the Peanuts cartons but this article helped a lot. I used to read the Peanuts articles every Sunday in the newspaper it was a tradition that me and my aunt had. Schulz and Glickman’s contribution to adding these very popular characters and making people of color represented in the media is something that I admire. Knowing now that they wanted to advocate this and just represent people of color just makes me wanted to read more about them.

  3. I absolutely loved this article! It was fun being able to understand the history of the Peanuts, it really was able to put a smile on my face. I think it’s crazy how impactful and popular Charlie Brown became but also adding in an African American character during the time of the Civil Rights movement might have been something small but was a huge step and an important message that needed to be shared. Not only did I grow up reading the comics and watching the movies I have always loved the Peanuts franchised and now knowing this information makes me love the comics and movies even more.

  4. I never knew about the history of Peanuts, but I am very glad I am now aware of it. This was a great article and it made me realize a lot of things that I did not know watching this show growing up. I never really thought about the race of the characters, but now looking at it as I’m older, I know it must have been a difficult decision to add Franklin but I am glad they did.

  5. I loved this article. I never knew the history of Peanuts. I didn’t really watch it much growing up but I love how the writer and Harriet Glickman took it upon themselves to take a stand against what was happening at the time. I’m happy that I read this article and will definitely be looking more in to what happened with Schulz after he created Franklin. I know that this issue still hasn’t truly been resolved and there still isn’t a vast amount of representation for other cultures and races on television(although the number has greatly increased over the last few years) but them taking that step definitely pushed society in the correct direction.

  6. Being the son of a huge “Peanuts gang” fan, I was quite aware of the whole story that comes from the mentionings of any characters’ names! This article really did a great job to inform me of some aspects that I was never even lead to know about! The appearance of the controversial addition of African Americans was one that I never even knew existed! Schultz and Glickman’s true courage to add more diversity to the fun-loving gang really showed off their character and also made for their comics to allow for many individuals to resonate with their bursts of comedy!

  7. The peanuts characters are all lovable and the fact they added Franklin is even better. He’s such a cool character and it’s great that he was included in a way that made him memorable. Breaking those racial barriers or at least attempting to at the time of their creation is super important because it portrayed the acceptance and unity in people against racism. Especially since southerners were against the idea, if they were into the peanuts comics, they would be exposed to this wonderful inclusion and it would be shared among many.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this article. I am not a big fan of the Peanuts; however, I have seen it with my friends on the TV. It is interesting to know that the idea of incorporating Franklin into Peanuts was initially an idea of Harriet Glickman and not from Schulz. This article helps me know more about the character and the movie. I believe that the idea of representing people of color in a comic book was a good idea from Glickman.

  9. I think it is incredible that Harriet Glickman decided that, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy’s death, she would also spark some type of movement. It only takes one person to start shifting people’s perspectives into something that follows an important movement; in this case, it is representing people of color in a comic book.

  10. To think something like this would be the center of both backlash and intrigue is sad to say the least. I haven’t seen the new Peanuts movie, nor the new character but no one my age, or younger than me would think that seeing a character of color is a big deal. But back then it was hotly talked about! I think that Schulz and Glickman’s contribution by adding the character and making blacks more represented in media is truly amazing. This shows a glimmer of humility that in the 1950’s was not so present.

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