Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2006

Law & Life
Unvarnished Account:
A review: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin
By Richard C. Baldwin

The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin: Mirror To America. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 401 pages.)

When John Hope Franklin was 19 years old, he stared down an angry lynch mob. At 21, he was the first black graduate student admitted to Harvard without the school imposing probationary conditions. Now, at 90, Professor Franklin, esteemed historian and champion for racial equality, has rendered another service to the public by chronicling an extraordinary American life. While Professor Franklin is already known to historians and civil rights activists, his reflections merit the attention of anyone concerned about keeping the promise of America.

In this thoughtful and inspirational memoir, Professor Franklin offers us an unvarnished account of his life experience as a black man in 20th century America.. "Born in 1915, (he) grew up in a racial climate that was stifling to (his) senses and damaging to (his) emotional health and social being." The following incidents provide us with a glimpse of the racial animosity he encountered:

This climate touched me at every stage of my life. I was forcibly removed from a train at the age of six for having accidentally taken a seat in the "white people’s coach." I was the unhappy victim, also at age six, of a race riot that kept the family divided for more than four years. I endured the very strict segregation laws and practices in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was rejected as a guide through busy downtown Tulsa traffic by a blind white woman when she discovered that the twelve-year-old at her side was black. I underwent the harrowing experience as a sixteen-year-old college freshman of being denounced in the most insulting terms for having the temerity to suggest to a white ticket seller a convenient way to make change. More harrowing yet was the crowd of rural white men who confronted and then nominated me as a possible Mississippi lynching victim when I was nineteen. I was refused service while on a date as a Harvard University graduate student at age twenty-one. Racism in the Navy turned my effort to volunteer during World War II into a demeaning embarrassment, such that at a time when the United States was ostensibly fighting for the Four Freedoms I struggled to evade the draft. I was called a "Harvard nigger" at age forty. At age forty-five, because of race, New York banks denied me a loan to purchase a home. At age sixty I was ordered to serve as a porter for a white person in a New York hotel, at age eighty to hang up a white guest’s coat at a Washington club where I was not an employee but a member." (Professor Franklin was in Washington, D.C., at the time to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by our government, in recognition of a lifetime of scholarly achievement and public service to our nation).

Franklin credits his parents and teachers for instilling in him a resiliency that fortified him against a lifetime of adversity. During years of abject segregation, his parents consistently encouraged their children to not waste their energy "fretting" about everyday slights and injustices but to muster their energy and demonstrate their worth. Young Franklin, who quickly excelled as a student, enjoyed the loving support of two hard-working parents who encouraged achievement and self-confidence in children they would launch to navigatein a sea of racial harassment. In Tulsa, young Franklin was aided by numerous teachers who valued and challenged their students in segregated and under-funded black schools. Even after a worldly life, Professor Franklin remembers his high school principal, Ellis W. Woods, as "one of the most remarkable men (he has) ever known." "… Principal Woods instilled enough confidence in us almost to compensate (for the inequalities of segregated education). Not quite, however. So he added to his preachments of self-confidence the argument that in any fair competition, the students of Booker T. Washington would perform not only creditably, but even excellently... Indeed, the faculty was as zealous as he was in urging students to cultivate self-confidence in the face of racist practices and policies that would deny them their dignity and even their humanity."

Professor Franklin details the making of a scholar at Fisk and Harvard in the 1930s at a time of complete racial segregation in America. His acceptance to graduate school at Harvard was the first time it admitted a student from a historically black institution without imposing conditions. After receiving his PhD from Harvard, he became the first black historian to become a full professor at a white educational institution in America (Brooklyn College), and later was appointed chair of the University of Chicago’s history department. He lectured and taught internationally on American history and American race relations. A prolific writer and teacher for 70 years, Franklin has been internationally acclaimed as a historian, receiving over 130 honorary degrees. His classic work, From Slavery To Freedom, sold 3.5 million copies. While he exercised an enormous influence on the development of African-American history, Professor Franklin resisted efforts to be pigeon-holed in any way that limited his scholarship as a historian.

Remarkably, Professor Franklin’s extensive scholarship is only half the story of this energetic life. He also enjoyed a rich family life and pursued the public good as a private citizen. In his spare time, he provided Thurgood Marshall substantial assistance in the historical research utilized for the Supreme Court brief and argument in Brown v. Board of Education as well as other historic civil rights cases. In 1965, he participated in the celebrated march to Montgomery, Ala., with Dr. King, risking his personal safety for the cause of civil rights. He also played a significant role in the advancement of the Children’s Defense Fund and many other public service projects.

In 1997, Professor Franklin accepted President Clinton’s appointment as chair of the advisory board to the President’s Initiative on Race. Professor Franklin describes the goals of the Initiative as helping to "educate the nation about the facts surrounding the issue of race; to promote a constructive dialogue and confront and work through the difficult issues surrounding race; to recruit and encourage leadership at all levels to help bridge racial divides; and to find, develop, and implement solutions in critical areas such as education, economic opportunity, housing, health care, crime and the administration of justice." To further these goals, Franklin and his board met in communities across the nation. As a result, many citizen groups engaged in conversations about race followed by actions to achieve concrete results in their communities. Examples of these successful projects were published in January 1999 as "Pathways to One America in the Twenty First Century: Promising Practices for Racial Reconciliation." Professor Franklin laments that these successes were not widely reported by the media. His view is that politicians and the media politicized the Initiative and failed to take positive steps to further their work.

As a citizen who participated in the interracial dialogues described by Professor Franklin, this writer has experienced how taking the time to better understand the experiences of others leads to a more inclusive community. Citizens who meet to honestly discuss differences in experience and common goals discover a mutual respect that provides a foundation for real solutions to community problems. Professor Franklin reminds us that we cannot fail to act responsibly as citizens simply because the issue of race has been so politicized in our country. Racial equality should not be viewed as a partisan issue. To achieve racial equality, the question to ask is not which partisan viewpoint should prevail at the tables of decision-making. More fundamentally, the question is whether all of us are democratically represented at decision-making tables. Professor Franklin’s life provides us with an example of a balanced approach to pursuing positive social change. He acknowledges the enormous change that has occurred during his lifetime but refuses to minimize the changes still needed to achieve racial equality. He adamantly rejects a status quo paralyzed by complacency and cynicism. Against the criticism swirling around him, he kept his eye on the prize of racial equality and courageously labored for constructive change.

Professor Franklin’s memoirs disclose a life committed to human understanding and the elimination of a color line that damaged the lives of his family and friends. He sees an America still partially segregated but not yet sufficiently committed to full inclusion. He quotes Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College, who made the observation in a speech more than 50 years ago: "As this country could not exist half slave and have free, it cannot exist half segregated and half desegregated."

Few Americans have done more than Professor Franklin to move us toward a more inclusive and just society. He has done so by working hard to pursue his own dreams while at the same time giving generously of himself to his community. His memoirs depict a man of integrity who refused to barter conviction for personal gain. Pointing to contemporary disparities of great consequence to many black Americans, he completes his memoirs with the following democratic truth: "The test of an advanced society is not in how many millionaires it can produce, but in how many law-abiding, hardworking, highly respected and self-respecting loyal citizens it can produce. The success of such a venture is a measure of the success of our national enterprise."

Richard C. Baldwin is a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge. He serves on the non-profit board of Uniting to Understand Racism (understanding racism@ qwest.net) and has facilitated numerous interracial dialogue groups.

© 2006 Richard C. Baldwin

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