In the summer of 1968, the world was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. And Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters were at the height of their popularity, having recently starred in their fourth TV special after A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown had been established as instant classics. Though seemingly unrelated, a schoolteacher in Los Angeles saw a way to bring the two events together.
On April 15, 1968, Harriet Glickman sent a letter to Charles Schulz, which began:
"Since the death of Martin Luther King, I’ve been asking myself what I can do to help change those conditions in our society which led to the assassination and which contribute to the vast seas of misunderstanding, fear, hate, and violence."
She went on to express the importance mass media had “in shaping the unconscious attitudes of our kids,” and how “the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters could happen with a minimum of impact. The gentleness of the kids … even Lucy, is a perfect setting. The baseball games, kite-flying … yes, even the Psychiatric Service cum Lemonade Stand would accommodate the idea smoothly."
Immediately, Schulz replied; while his response was honest, it’s not what Glickman had hoped for. In Schulz’s letter, dated April 26, 1968, the cartoonist thanked Glickman for her suggestion, but said that by introducing an African-American character, he was "faced with the same problem that other cartoonists are who wish to comply with your suggestion. We all would like very much to be able to do this, but each of us is afraid that it would look like we were patronizing our Negro friends." Schulz closed by stating that, "I don’t know what the solution is."
Undeterred, Glickman wrote back on April 27, acknowledging that Schulz has presented “an interesting dilemma” and requesting “permission to use your letter to show some Negro friends. Their response as parents may be useful to you in your thinking on this subject.”
Schulz was enthusiastic in his support of Glickman's endeavor, noting that he would be “very anxious to hear what your friends think of my reasons for not including a Negro character in the strip,” adding that he would be “very happy to try, but I am sure that I would receive the sort of criticism that would make it appear as if I were doing this in a condescending manner.”
Further missives followed, until Schulz sent a letter on July 1, urging Glickman to check out the paper the week of July 29, noting that “I have drawn an episode which I think will please you.”
On July 31, 1968, Franklin Armstrong made his comic strip debut as the Peanuts’ first Black character, and the first minority character to appear in any major, mainstream comic strip.
Years later, Schulz recalled in an interview that the strips he drew featuring Franklin were some of the only ones that ever resulted in feedback, or pushback, from his editors.
“There was one strip where Charlie Brown and Franklin had been playing on the beach, and Franklin said, ‘Well, it's been nice being with you, come on over to my house some time,’” Schulz recalled. “[My editors] didn't like that. Another editor protested once when Franklin was sitting in the same row of school desks with Peppermint Patty, and said, ‘We have enough trouble here in the South without you showing the kids together in school.’ But I never paid any attention to those things, and I remember telling [United Features president] Larry [Rutman] at the time about Franklin—he wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long while on the phone, and I finally sighed and said, ‘Well, Larry, let's put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How's that?’ So that's the way that ended.”
Harriet Glickman passed away on March 27, 2020. In reaction to the news, Karen Johnson, director of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, paid tribute to the woman who inspired Franklin. "Heroes are hard to come by," Johnson wrote. "I admire a lot of people, but not to the extent to call them a hero. But Harriet Glickman truly is MY hero."
Glickman, too, was immensely proud of the part she played in helping to create the iconic character, stating that, “I often like to say that Franklin is my third child.”
This story has been updated for 2020.