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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Sweet Scholarly Revenge BY CHAR MILLER Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin Farrar, Straus and Giroux 401 pages, $25 1.11. he mid-1960s were tumul tuous. The assassinations that silenced its galvaniz ing 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 longall 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 African American history. Against the backdrop of urban chaos and human conflict, he brought out a compendium, Three Negro Classics ered together in print \(a companionate proximity their authors never shared in 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: 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.” 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 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 27, 2006