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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50 Comments

  • Congratulations on your nomination! I remember reading this article for the first time and being so surprised in the implementation of an African American character. Charlie Brown is an iconic cartoon that everyone knows and loves. The relevancy of adding an African American character really makes the cartoon more diverse and relatable to a bigger audience. I really enjoyed this article! Great job!

  • This article and its topic are both awesome! Although I know that minority groups are still battling for equal representation in all sorts of industries today, the introduction of Black cartoon characters are something that I had never even stopped to think of. I love how Franklin Armstrong was introduced to the Peanuts family in 1968, when he was needed the most. I think this speaks volumes about Schulz and his want for equality.

  • This is such a fun article to read. It really is refreshing to see something that is not about murder or very serious and sad stories. This article is such a positive light and a movement in television as well as in society for better times. The bringing of a character that is black although it might seem like a big deal now, it certainly was one back then. I also really loved the images that were used in the article and again I truly felt joy as it showcased how great our country could be and the process towards equality.

  • Harriet Glickman was right in convincing Schulz to incorporate an African American character in the cast, even if he was a bit hesitant at first. Whatever may be the case, incorporating this character brought attention to racial issues and segregation. I am grateful to Glickman for recognizing an opportunity to bring awareness to said issues. I think this may be compared to how homosexual characters are being incorporated in cartoons and kids shows in modern times.

  • I never would have thought that a cartoon could be so socially influential, and I applaud Schulz for not only wanting to do something for poc but going out of his way to ask poc their opinion of the matter, a lot of people act on their ignorance before becoming educated. It was also admirable that Schulz stood firm in his decision when asked if he was sure about releasing the strip, and after the release and receiving backlash he remained firm. An important thing to remember after reading a “happy ending” story such as this one is that the racism is still an on going problem that so many poc face in America. Congratulations on the nomination !

  • I do not think that I have ever put this much thought into Charlie Brown before, but the fact that you have is amazing! I wonder what made you think of writing this article? It was incredible to read about the origins of Franklin and the troubles that were faced. I think that things that can be perceived as small, such as a single character, can lead to important changes. Good job!

  • I love the Peanuts!!! Just a little fun fact, my favorite character is Woodstock. I had honestly only heard that Franklin Armstrong was not part of the original because my sister had mentioned it. After she told me that I started thinking and it was true that he was not really someone who was there, but was more of just in the background. I found it interesting how there was a debate if he would even be in it. Thankfully, Harriet Glickman saw how important it was to have diversity. Great job and congratulations on your nomination!!!

  • I loved this article. I grew up watching Charlie Brown so this article was extremely interesting to me. I liked that you were able to break down the origin of Franklin. I think that it was amazing that Harriet Glickman was able to see there was a under- representation of colored characters on this show and wanted to make a change.

  • Congrats on your nomination ! it was well deserved! . I have seen many holiday specials and though I knew a lot about them but i definitely lacked the actual background of the characters. I definitely did not that Franklin was purposely introduced as a character of color. I feel like that is so important and it is amazing that that was noticed at this time. I had no idea that Franklin was even added to the show i thought he was a part of the original cast. It is sad reading about how they had to tone down his character because of assumptions based on race.

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