When Better Isn’t Nearly Good Enough 

A pioneer of civil rights returns to the past—and to Fisk University

In March 1965, a group of prominent historians—including C. Vann Woodward, Richard Hofstadter and William Leuchtenberg—traveled to Montgomery to participate in the final stages of the Selma-to-Montgomery march.
In March 1965, a group of prominent historians—including C. Vann Woodward, Richard Hofstadter and William Leuchtenberg—traveled to Montgomery to participate in the final stages of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Though they didn’t want to identify themselves, on the morning of the final stretch from the outskirts of the city to the Alabama state capitol, one of the organizers made a sign reading “U.S. historians” and gave them a prominent place in the march, the better to witness the historic events. The historians were white, save one: John Hope Franklin, then teaching at the University of Chicago. Franklin’s presence that day had an added significance. Not only was he one of the most respected American historians, but he was also the first African American to make it into the field’s elite ranks—one of the first to receive a doctorate in history from Harvard; the first to chair a history department at a non-black university; the first to chair the Southern Historical Association, the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians (and one of the few people of any color to chair all three). Franklin, now 90 and an emeritus professor at Duke, is still going strong. This year he has published two books—In Search of the Promised Land, a history of a family of freed slaves in the antebellum South, and Mirror to America, his autobiography. Born in rural Oklahoma, Franklin and his family—his father was a lawyer—moved to Tulsa in the aftermath of that city’s infamous race riots of 1921. He, along with his older brother and younger sister, later attended Fisk University, where he met his future wife Aurelia. Both the black community in Tulsa and the students at Fisk were islands of opportunity and support within deeply segregated, racist societies, and Franklin draws sharp distinctions between, for example, his nationwide tour with the college choir (ending at Carnegie Hall) and numerous instances of discrimination, even violence, in Nashville. From an early age, Franklin protested segregation and racism—he tried to meet with President Roosevelt in 1934 after the lynching of a Maury County teen falsely accused of rape—but his real success was in living a life that gave the lie to the assumptions underlying Jim Crow: that African Americans were less intelligent, less motivated and happy to live in segregated society. Franklin does not limit his criticism to the South. Indeed, another important lesson of Mirror to America is that while racism may have been more violent and raw in the South, it was no less a fact of life in the rest of the country, even in the halls of America’s supposed bastion of liberal intellectualism, Harvard University. There Franklin was ignored by restaurant servers, had racist jokes told in his presence and was given fewer opportunities to teach and otherwise participate in graduate student life. In some ways, he found the situation in the North even more disturbing because, while the struggle was the same, the battle lines were less clearly drawn. At one point he attended a Boston NAACP meeting, where he was called out by a local African American woman for stirring up trouble in what she thought was a more enlightened society. “Many, like this ‘proper Bostonian,’ could not see the obvious similarities between racism in Boston and, say, Charleston,” he writes. Discrimination did not, however, prevent Franklin from achieving early success, being one of the first in his cohort to publish a scholarly article and, upon completion, his dissertation. As one of the vanguard of Southern historians reexamining Reconstruction, he rose quickly in the academic ranks, first at small schools in North Carolina and then at Howard University, followed by Brooklyn College (where he was the first African American at a “white” school to be tenured, and the first to be department chair), Chicago (where he was also chair) and Duke. Like other progressive historians of his era, Franklin believed that his field could help guide the way by breaking down myths about the nation’s past. While at Howard, he worked closely with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, researching the histories of the post-Civil War amendments upon which the future Supreme Court justice would base his argument in Brown vs. Board of Education. Even as he taught a full load during the year, he spent his summers teaching courses at universities around the country and in Europe, taking every opportunity to travel and lecture. In recognition of his academic and civil rights work, he received the National Medal of Freedom in 1995, the highest honor available to a civilian. But while Franklin’s story itself is one of personal success, he is more ambivalent about the country’s overall racial progress. In the wake of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, Franklin believed that the country’s leadership was finally coming around to the urgency of civil rights. But as a racial pioneer, he became frustrated with its attempts to use him as a token in place of substantive change. For example, in 1960 the United States sent an all-white delegation to Nigeria’s independence ceremonies. Afraid that the delegation’s racial makeup could provide an opportunity for criticism, the State Department asked Franklin to go on a simultaneous mission to visit Nigeria’s universities. He went, but was never called in for a debriefing after he returned, leaving him convinced he had been used. “The thought that perhaps I caused some to infer that I had knowingly assisted the United States in conveying a false impression was and remains deeply disturbing,” he writes. Today, Franklin is no less adamant in his insistence on the need for further progress in civil rights. While he recognizes that the country is on balance a better, more integrated place than it was on that Montgomery morning in 1965, he is also wary of any blanket conclusions regarding the state of American race relations. “The longer I live the more I am inclined to question the capability of the human race to be consistent in its judgment and unswerving in its commitment to lofty, constructive principles,” he writes. “Racial discrimination and even racial segregation continue in blatant as well as subtle forms.” There are more African Americans in professions and leadership positions than ever before, but there are also more African American men in prison than in college. Which, he asks, is a better measure of progress? To answer that question, Franklin decides, is the task confronting us today.

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