Sweet Scholarly Revenge

Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin   

Farrar, Straus and Giroux   

401 pages, $25   

The mid-1960s were tumultuous. The assassinations that silenced its galvanizing voices, the landmark legislation that increased civil-rights protections and established environmental regulation, and the liberating movements that redefined the political possibilities and human landscape for so many who had been so oppressed for so long—all these developments are the stuff of memory and now, textbooks.   

But the remembrance of things past is not always the same thing as the past; just ask any high-school student lugging around one of those history texts whose heft bends their backs and over whose glossy pages their eyes daily glaze. But what of primary sources; could they better capture a people in a particular place and time? One who thought so was historian John Hope Franklin, celebrated author of From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (1947), the definitive text on African American history. Against the backdrop of urban chaos and human conflict, he brought out a compendium, Three Negro Classics (1965), which gathered together in print (a companionate proximity their authors never shared in life), the autobiographies of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, and James Weldon Johnson.

Born into a world that “was a peculiarly difficult one for intelligent and sensitive young men,” a rough era of “industrial expansion, and material progress” that excluded African Americans from its emerging benefits, these three refused to be held back. Because they “did not conform to the stereotype” of the placid and pliable, they experienced “hurt as well as hardship.” Yet their individual lives and collective experience, which spanned “the better portion of the last half of the nineteenth century and a goodly portion of the present century, tell a great deal about the problems of adjustment such Negroes faced as they attempted to live as normal, intelligent, well-educated Americans.” Just so, their memoirs had an added value for the rising generation. “If every Negro cannot throw himself into a passionate fight to destroy racial bigotry or “pass” into the society of his adversaries,” asserted Franklin, “he can at least maintain his dignity and self respect. And that is the message of each of these works, and why their publication together is an auspicious event.”

The publication of Franklin’s autobiography is no less auspicious, no less reflective of the era through which he has moved, no less framed around his enduring pursuit of racial equality and social justice. As it charts the intersection of self and society, his life story underscores what another of Franklin’s heroes, W. H. Crogman, had in mind when in The Progress of a Race he argued that “the world needs to know of what mettle these people are made.”

An iron-willed determination has been one of Franklin’s greatest assets, and he would need every ounce of that strength to see him through what, in the early 1930s, amid a withering depression and suffocating segregation, must have seemed a daunting ambition: to enter college (he attended Fisk), earn his diploma, and then gain a doctorate in history at Harvard. Its difficulty was only magnified by Franklin’s growing awareness that he must navigate between his scholarly impulses and his social conscience, tension that erupted in December 1933. That’s when Cordie Cheeks, an African American teenager living near Fisk campus, was “castrated and lynched, his body riddled with bullets as the barbaric participants passed a pistol from one another.” Shaken, Franklin and his peers reasoned that if this tragedy could befall Cheeks, “it could happen to any of us.”

Mirror To America

But that was not the moral they drew the next fall. As student body president, Franklin was charged with delivering a carefully worded petition to a visiting President Franklin Roosevelt, “asking him to speak out against the barbaric practice of lynching and specifically against the horrible murder of Cordie Cheeks.” Learning of the students’ intentions, the university president murmured his support for their concerns but declared “such a gesture unbecoming and impolite,” and suggested instead that he arrange a meeting with the president later, at Warm Springs. Waiting for a confab that never materialized, Franklin came to suspect that the original offer had been a charade. “I took from my disappointment one lesson: Jim Crow America was skilled at deflecting or ignoring appeals to justice and equity.”

To counter this manipulation, and expose its machinations, Franklin vowed sweet scholarly revenge, hoping that in his hands the pen would prove a mighty weapon in the struggle for full citizenship. “All it would require would be my ambition, determination, and willingness to excel.”

Certainly Cambridge offered enough evidence that northern communities were as racist as his hometown of Tulsa or Nashville. Although he achieved much academic success at Harvard, Franklin found its hothouse atmosphere “stifling.” Like its nasty anti-Semitism, the university’s patronizing tone and discriminatory practices, when coupled with the “capriciousness of the faculty” that flunked a “Southern white candidate whose drawl and unprepossessing appearance convinced them that he did not look like a Harvard Ph.D.,” unsettled Franklin. Rather than finish his dissertation in residence, he headed south to find a teaching post to support himself while he researched and wrote. Ever driven, and despite teaching five classes a semester at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, he completed his landmark study of Free Blacks in North Carolina, published in 1943 two years after his Harvard graduation. By any measure, Franklin was on a fast track.

Although never derailed, his progress was slowed by the daily difficulties of being black in a segregated society. Libraries and librarians did not know what to make of him. The Navy refused his post-Pearl Harbor offer to volunteer because it would not enlist him except in a menial post. The War Department did not deign to respond to his application to work on its combat-history project. These personal affronts soon gained historic force as the war wound down, and he began to craft From Slavery to Freedom. Setting a blistering pace, he wrote more than 250,000 words in less than two years, while maintaining a heavy teaching load. Its publication changed his professional life. Howard University offered him a coveted position that he accepted while assuming that this new post would be a dead-end precisely because the school was considered “The Capstone of Negro Education.” He was wrong, for by the mid-1950s he was tapped to chair the Brooklyn College history department, and in another decade migrated to the University of Chicago. From Slavery to Freedom helped him break the academic color line.

It also offered a profound reminder of a people’s pain, loss, and suffering. “In the planning and writing of my work,” Franklin observes with a nod to Gibbon, “I had witnessed more than five hundred years of human history pass before my eyes. I had seen one slave ship after another from Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, England, and the United States pile black human cargo into its bowels [and then] dump my ancestors at New World ports.” Their lives were in constant jeopardy:

I had seen them beat black men until they themselves were weary and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, ‘Give us liberty or give us death,’ and not mean a word of it. I had seen them measure out medication or education for a sick or ignorant white child and ignore a black child similarly situated. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs to the ghoulish witnesses. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

He had never been naïve about this dread past, but the book—still in print—has given him a public platform from which to expose the historical dimension of racial inequities and their contemporary manifestations, linking his scholarship with social policy. That vital linkage led him in 1959 to turn down a post at the University of Hawaii. As Franklin writes, “it was too far from the center of the fight that I continued to wage within the academy and without and too far from the places where I hoped to exert influence.”

Influential he became, and remains, as testified to by the number and array of awards he has received, professional commendations and public acclaim that came with new demands on his time and energy. None more so than his chairmanship of the advisory board of President Clinton’s Initiative on Race. His account of that service, and of the swirl of media misrepresentation of its efforts, is a sharp-eyed critique of the inability of some to understand that “the problem of race has been, and continues to be, an American problem, and the conversation that board began was, and remains, the means to a national solution.”

The dialogue, however incomplete, came to a halt with the 2000 elections, but that has not silenced Franklin. As had Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, and James Weldon Johnson before him, he has continued to hammer away at our resistance, obfuscation, and apathy.

The “test of an advanced society is not in how many millionaires it can produce,” he concludes, “but in how many law-abiding, hardworking, highly respected, and self-respecting loyal citizens it can produce. The success of such a venture is a measure of the success of our national enterprise.”

Contributing writer Char Miller teaches at Trinity University, and is author most recently of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio and editor of 50 Years of the Texas Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST