How Franklin, The Black 'Peanuts' Character, Was Born

Nov 6, 2015
Originally published on November 6, 2015 6:20 pm

Martin Luther King Jr. had been dead 11 days.

His assassination fresh on her mind, Harriet Glickman, a teacher raising three kids in suburban Los Angeles, sat down at her typewriter.

"Dear Mr. Schulz," she wrote, "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, hate, fear and violence."

Mr. Schulz was Charles Schulz. Glickman thought the creator of the popular Peanuts comic strip could play a small part in promoting tolerance and interracial friendship by including a black character in his strip.

She sent off the letter, not expecting a reply.

Schulz did write back, to say he had considered her suggestion. But he worried that if he created such a character, black parents might think he was condescending to their families.

With Schulz's permission, Glickman asked two of her black friends to send him some ideas on how to make a black character relatable.

A few weeks later, the cartoonist responded.

"You will be pleased to know that I have taken the first step in doing something about presenting a Negro child in the comic strip during the week of July 29," Schulz said. "I have drawn an episode which I think will please you."

Just like that, Franklin was born.

His debut, in 1968, drew praise from across the country, but also protest from Southern segregationists. Schulz kept Franklin but never developed him into as nuanced a character as the other Peanuts.

Still, Glickman said, his presence was remarkable in an era when the funny pages were overwhelmingly, if not completely, white.

This summer, Glickman hit the publicity circuit, promoting Franklin's story alongside Marleik Walker, the 12-year-old actor voicing Franklin in The Peanuts Movie that opens Nov. 6.

"It just kind of feels right to have the person that advocated for there to be an African-American character in the Peanuts gang to sit with me," Walker said.

For his part, Walker said he shared a lot of characteristics with Franklin — witty, smart, quick on his feet.

Glickman said the first time she met Walker, she knew he was the right actor to play Franklin.

"He's perfect," she said.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When "Peanuts" hit the funny pages 65 years ago, all of Charlie Brown's friends were white. Then, Franklin showed up. NPR's Adrian Florido recently met the woman who convinced cartoonist Charles Schulz to create Franklin and the kid who plays him in the movie that opens today.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Harriet Glickman was raising three kids in suburban Los Angeles when, in the late '60s, she wrote a letter.

HARRIET GLICKMAN: 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.

FLORIDO: She wrote that the mass media, including comics, played such a big role in shaping children's attitudes that why not create a black Peanut?

GLICKMAN: I don't know. Maybe a week and a half afterward, I got his first response, which was to say that although he really appreciated and had thought about something like this, he was hesitant to do it because he thought that black parents might find it patronizing.

FLORIDO: Glickman asked two of her black friends with kids to send Schulz their ideas about the character. They did.

GLICKMAN: And he wrote back and said, you will be pleased to see a new character in the strip on July 29. So I was, as you can imagine, thrilled, thrilled beyond words.

FLORIDO: That character was named Franklin. His debut drew praise and also some protest. Forty-seven years later, he's on the big screen with help from this guy.

MARLEIK DESHAWN WALKER II: My name is Marleik Deshawn Walker II, a.k.a. Mar Mar, and I'm the voice of Franklin in the new "Peanuts" movie.

FLORIDO: He says he and Franklin have a lot in common.

WALKER: He has a great attitude. He can - he's really smart. He's witty, too.

FLORIDO: Walker and Glickman recently hit the publicity circuit, and they just clicked.

WALKER: It just kind of feels right to have the person that advocated for there to be African-American character in the "Peanuts" gang to sit with me.

GLICKMAN: Yeah, I see Mar Mar as the absolutely perfect personification. He's as I envisioned Franklin to be. It just - he's perfect, perfect.

FLORIDO: A friendship half a century in the making, Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.