Atlanta, GA

How Martin Luther King, Jr. Disrupted The Whiteness of Charlie Brown

Isoul H. Harris

August 28, 1963

With his now-iconic speech, "I Have A Dream," Dr. Martin Luther King—a Morehouse College graduate and famed preacher of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church--changed the texture and course of America. The Atlanta-born preacher was unyielding in his fight for civil and human rights. Dr. King led a metamorphic life, and his death was equally transformative.

April 4, 1968

Dr. King's death created a racial divide in America felt worldwide. The assassination's aftershock reverberated across the world--and it rocked Black America at its core. Black people mourned while Black cities burned. The stench of sadism and sadness filled the air.

April 15, 1968

 Harriet Glickman, a suburban school teacher in Los Angeles, believed that PEANUTS comic strip creator Charles M. Schulz could ease America's racial tensions. She wrote a lengthy and expressive letter to Schultz, gently imploring him to integrate his widely read and influential 'toon. 

Dear Mr. Schulz, 

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 sea of misunderstanding, fear, hate, and violence. As a suburban housewife, the mother of three children, and a deeply concerned and active citizen, I am well aware of the road ahead. I believe that it will be another generation before the kind of open friendship, trust, and mobility will be an accepted part of our lives. It occurred to me today that the introduction of negro children into the group could happen with a minimum of impact. The gentleness of the kids …even Lucy…is a perfect setting. The baseball games…the kite-flying…would accommodate the idea smoothly…I hope the result will be more than one Black child…Let them be as adorable as the others …but please …allow them a Lucy!" 

 Schulz responded, saying that he had long thought of adding a Black character, but he thought such an introduction would be condescending. Glickman asked if she could show his response to her Black friends, and he agreed. 

June 6, 1968

One of Glickman's Black friends was Kenneth C. Kelly read Shultz's response and swiftly crafted and sent his own: 

"I'd like to express an opinion as a Negro father of two young boys. You mention fear of being patronizing. Though I doubt that any Negro would view your efforts that way, I'd like to suggest [that] would be a small price to pay for the positive results that would accrue!"

Kelly goes on to explain that including a Black "supernumerary" character—one without speaking lines, an extra--would at the very least allow his children to see themselves in the overall American scene and promote racial harmony in a comfortable, digestible way. WTF. Why is the comfort of racists always top of mind in America? 

On June 17, 2015, a white nationalist murdered nine Black people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. The cops asked him if he was hungry. They stopped at Burger King and bought him a meal. While the dead bodies of those 9 Black people grew colder and colder, their murderer ate hot fries. 

This Black father, Kenneth Kelly, implored Schulz, a White man of means, privilege, and power, to create an insignificant character of color so his Black children would feel significant.

That is America. 

And it is still the America of today. The streaming service HBO MAX announced in January of 2021 that it would revive the now iconic television show Sex and The City with a 10-episode limited series entitled "And Just Like That..." In response, Courtney Kemp, the creator of the STARZ series Power, tweeted: "Wouldn't it be great if the #sexandthecity reboot added a couple of strong BIPOC women...No guest stars. Not assistants or co-workers. Friends. With their own stories." 

So, we must implore another privileged, powerful, white person--this time Sarah Jessica Parker--to create Black characters on a show well-beloved by millions of Black women? In 2021? After a Black woman has ascended to The Office of the Vice-President of the United States of America, propelled by Black female voters? 

This is still America. 

July 31, 1968

A few months after receiving the letters Glickman and Kelly, Charles Schultz introduced Franklin Armstrong, the strip's first Black kid, as a full-fledged main character, not a supernumerary. 

Schutz faced resistance from both Southern readers and newspaper editors, who repeatedly tried to alter Franklin's interactions with the other characters, such as Peppermint Patti, with whom Franklin sat in the same row of school desks. People wrote Schulz begging him not to integrate the school. Geez. Bravo to Issa Rae for the upcoming television adaptation of the podcast Nice White Parents. School segregation is as real today as it was in 1968. It’s just that white liberal mothers have replaced Bull Conner. 

This has always been America. 

Schulz threatened to end The Peanuts strip if the editors changed his work. Some argue that despite Glickman's thoughtful suggestion ("allow them a Lucy"), Shultz never made Franklin a fully-realized person. (Read: flawed and neurotic.)

"Schulz may have had more to work with had he listened to Bishop James P. Shannon, who had marched beside [Dr. King] in Selma," wrote Nat Gertler, author of The Peanuts Collection: Treasures from the World's Most Beloved Comic Strip. "Shannon was quoted in The Los Angeles Times as wondering if the new Peanuts character would be a believable human being who has some evident personal failing,' versus being an "a perfect little black man.'" (Read: Schultz should have blessed Franklin with the Holy Grail: white mediocrity.)

The dancing, ice-hockey playing, first-Black-friend of Charlie Brown last appeared in The Peanuts Movie in 2015, and he turns 53 in July of 2021. 

January 6, 2020

 Rev. Raphael Warnock—like Dr. King, a graduate of Morehouse College and celebrated preacher of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church—became the first Black senator from the state of Georgia in American history. 

Hopefully, this will be America.

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