John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America

Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005
Peter Foley/epa/Corbis
Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005

The historian John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009, would have turned one hundred this year. I have thought of him often in recent months as we have seen a conservative Republican governor call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, as the Democratic Party has renamed the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in order to distance itself from two slave-owning forebears, as Yale University debates removing the name Calhoun from one of its undergraduate colleges.

Many Americans in 2015 seem to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that has made us anything but a colorblind society. There could be no more fitting tribute to Franklin’s one hundredth birthday than this collective stock-taking, for no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future. And in that effort he has also done something more for history itself: insisting not just upon its relevance, but indeed its preeminence as the indispensable instrument of change and even salvation from legacies that left unexamined will destroy us. “Good history,” he remarked in 1989, “is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

Franklin’s childhood in segregated Oklahoma introduced him to racism’s cruelties at an early age. He was just six when he and his mother were ejected from a train for sitting in a white-only car. His father was so embittered by his treatment as a black lawyer that he moved his family to an all-black town after resolving to “resign from the world dominated by white people.” Yet Franklin’s parents insisted that he was the equal of any other human being, and his mother repeatedly urged him to tell anyone who asked him about his aspirations that he planned to be “the first Negro president of the United States.” If you believe in yourself, his mother urged, “you won’t be crying; you’ll be defying.”

Defying, not crying. That captures John Hope Franklin’s life, and it captures the history he wrote, a history that would, in his words, “attempt to rehabilitate a whole people” and serve them as a weapon of collective defiance. Inspired by a brilliant teacher at Fisk University, Franklin came to see how “historical traditions have controlled…attitudes and conduct,” and how changing history, challenging the truth of the “hallowed past,” was the necessary condition for changing the present and future. In important ways, the study of history was for Franklin not a choice; it was an imperative. “The true scholar,” he wrote in 1963, “must pursue truth in his field; he must, as it were, ply his trade…. If one tried to escape,…he would be haunted;…he would be satisfied in no other pursuit.” History, in the many meanings of the term, chose him.

But the “Negro scholar,” Franklin wrote, should not imagine he could disappear into an ivory tower. The choice to “turn his back on the world” was not available. From Jonathan Edwards, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Kenneth Galbraith, Franklin observed, the American scholar had been drawn into policy and the practical. The black scholar must fully embrace this tradition of American intellectual life. “I now assert,” Franklin proclaimed,

that the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his history and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.

Fundamental to the task at hand would be rewriting the history of history, revising the “hallowed” falsehoods, illustrating how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well. Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given “the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.” Post–Civil War southerners had endeavored to “win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.”

Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II.

But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.

Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began “stalking” him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.

The kind of exhaustive research Franklin undertook and described for this biography underpinned all his efforts to expand the scope of American history. He discovered the ironies and contradictions of American unfreedom in the lives of free blacks in antebellum North Carolina; he demonstrated how the pervasive presence of violence shaped and controlled every aspect of white—as well as black—lives in southern slave society; he illustrated the hunger for liberation in the records of runaways determined to free themselves. And in From Slavery to Freedom (1958) he sought to create an overarching American and global narrative to explain it all. The book has sold more than three million copies.

Even Franklin, who had personally felt the brunt of segregation, who had understood the terrors of racial violence and oppression, was sobered by what he found. Writing From Slavery to Freedom, piecing together a comprehensive account of five hundred years of black history, brought tales of horror before his eyes:

I had seen one slave ship after another…pile black human cargo into its bowels…. I had seen them dump my ancestors at New World ports as they would a load of cattle and wait smugly for their pay…. I had seen them beat black men…and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, “Give us liberty or give us death,” and not mean one word of it…. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs…. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”

Franklin reserved a particularly vehement resentment for any effort to co-opt or distort his own historical work—to undermine its truths in support of a particular agenda. What he came to regard as one of the worst of such incidents occurred in the early 1960s when the US Commission on Civil Rights invited him to write a history of civil rights since the nation’s founding, to be completed in time for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963. When Franklin delivered the manuscript, however, it was greeted with disappointment by commission members who had anticipated “a note of greater tolerance and moderation.” Franklin reminded the commission that the history of blacks in the United States was “not a pretty picture,” and continued, “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.” Forty years later, Franklin still deplored the commission’s “blatant and crude use of me in its effort to present a false picture of ‘Negro progress.’” Just as bad, it was also a blatant and crude use of history.

The truth that was at once scholarship’s product and purpose must not be undermined. The black scholar, he wrote, “must understand the difference between hard-hitting advocacy on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other.” This commitment embraced both idealism and instrumentalism. I am struck as I reread John Hope Franklin’s meditations on history by his sense of vocation, by the awe with which he regarded the role of scholar, by the almost sacred language with which he spoke of what I fear is today now more often regarded as just another job or profession. For Franklin, it was a transcendent calling, one that in the logic of his era and origins should have been unattainable for him.

Franklin recognized an irony in this. The black scholar must “pursue truth while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.” The revisionist history Franklin sought would, he believed, be unassailable, would overtake past interpretations and exert its force in changing the world because it would, within the clearly articulated standards of the prevailing historical enterprise, be more exhaustively researched, more powerfully argued. It would be a quintessential use of the master’s tools to take down the master’s house. Franklin had a deep and inextinguishable faith in the power of an accurate and just history to change the world. It was, as he put it, “armed with the tools of scholarship” that he did battle against laws, superstitions, prejudices designed to destroy “humane dignity” and even “his capacities for survival.”

A photograph of John Hope Franklin from his Harvard University admissions file, circa 1935
Harvard University Archives
A photograph of John Hope Franklin from his Harvard University admissions file, circa 1935

Yet the historian did not need to be entirely confined to the realm of pure scholarship. The tools of history could also—though separately—be deployed in policy work where past realities could illuminate pressing contemporary dilemmas. Perhaps the most meaningful of such engagements for Franklin was his work with Thurgood Marshall and the team of lawyers and advisers building the case against school segregation for Brown v. Board of Education. The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment would be a crucial element in the case. This was an instance, Franklin proclaimed with some pride, of “historians to the rescue!” In this circumstance, he deemed it appropriate to present his findings “like a lawyer’s brief,” rather than aspiring to the more “objective” and dispassionate stance of the disinterested scholar.

Ultimately, Franklin concluded as he looked back, “I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to,” but the tensions between this activism and his scholarly ideals compelled him throughout his long life to self-consciously negotiate the treacherous shoals between advocacy and objectivity. “While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship,” he observed in his autobiography, “I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tightrope walking.”

In 1980, in an address that marked his departure from the University of Chicago, where he had taught for sixteen years—what proved to be only his first retirement—Franklin announced an explicit shift in perspective in relation to the past. With now unimpeachable credentials as a highly distinguished historian, with a large and influential oeuvre of historical writing, and as the recipient of almost every imaginable honor, he perhaps felt the burden of establishing legitimacy partially lifted. He had earned the right and freedom to speak his mind. Up to this point in his career, he said, he had regarded himself as among “the faithful disciples of Clio, concerned exclusively, or at least primarily, with the past.” He had for four decades, he said, left it to “sociologists, political scientists, and soothsayers” to chart a course for the future. But now, as he was leaving formal teaching responsibilities, “I propose to shift my focus and to dare to think of Clio’s having a vision of the future.”

In actuality, Franklin can hardly be said to have abandoned his accustomed rigorous historical research during the twenty-nine remaining years of his life. Nor had he been entirely silent about the future in his first sixty-five years. His evolution would perhaps better be described as an expansion of focus rather than a shift. But as the twentieth century approached its end, Franklin began to envision the century to come and to anticipate the persistence of race and its legacy into a new time.

In April 1992, while Franklin was in the air en route to the University of Missouri to deliver a series of endowed lectures, a Simi Valley, California, jury announced the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Rodney King. By the time he reached the St. Louis airport, Los Angeles had erupted in riots that ultimately killed fifty-three people before the California National Guard was summoned to quell the violence. For Franklin, these events seemed a tragic affirmation of the argument at the core of his already-prepared Missouri lectures: racism, “the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history,” had not been eliminated—even with the notable progress of the civil rights movement. As W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed the problem of the twentieth century to be “the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” so now Franklin cast his eyes forward to declare it the fundamental challenge for the twenty-first. “I venture to state categorically,” he proclaimed, “that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line.”

And again (or still) he worried about willful distortions of history—this time including more recent emerging histories—that threatened to undermine the nation’s capacity to confront and eliminate racial injustice. The myth of a colorblind society, often erected upon a cynical celebration of the achievements of civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, was being developed in the 1980s and 1990s, Franklin believed, to end the struggle for racial equality by proclaiming it already achieved. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States,” Franklin stated emphatically to his Missouri audience, “and never has existed.” But to advance the myth, Franklin asserted, was not simply a delusion; it was a far more pernicious act of bad faith. “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Brown had, in Franklin’s words, been “no magic wand.” “Litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, degradation, segregation, and discrimination.” Color remained “a major consideration in virtually everything Americans thought, said, or did.” Rodney King’s beating was clear testimony to the persisting force of race. Today, more than twenty years later, Franklin could deliver the same message. We are neither colorblind nor post-racial. Franklin would have been deeply saddened, but I doubt he would have been surprised, by the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore. He would have been equally saddened and, one guesses, angered by the recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and by the threat to student body diversity in higher education implied by the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Fisher v. University of Texas.

In the last months of his life, Franklin was buoyed by the rise of Barack Obama, which he declared “amazing.” “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.” He dared hope that the nation had “turn[ed] a significant corner.” But he knew that erasing the color line required far more than electing a black president. Until we had a new history, we could not build a different and better future. The fundamental requirement, what we

need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past that is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around.

In other words, it is history that has the capacity to save us. “Historians to the rescue!” Dare we think that the recent rejections of Confederate symbols and of the reputations and legacies of slaveowners might be the opening for such a revisionist and clarifying effort? How can we lodge the truth of history in national discourse and public policy?

In an editorial on September 4, 2015, The New York Times underscored how a full understanding of history must be at the heart of any resolution of America’s racial dilemma. In words that come close to echoing Franklin’s, the Times wrote of what it called the “Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’”—a truth rooted in the legacies of the past. “Demonstrators who chant the phrase,” the Times noted,

are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact—that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.

Only if we understand and acknowledge this past can we grapple with the conflicts of the present and the promise of the future.

“To confront our past and see it for what it is.” Franklin’s words. The past “is.” Not the past was. The past lives on. What would it mean to confront it, to see it clearly? Recent history can offer us some examples of nations that have taken on the burden of their history. Germany and its Nazi past. South Africa and apartheid. The principle, and in South Africa an explicit policy and practice, was that of “truth and reconciliation,” a recognition that only a collective investigation and acknowledgment of past wrongs can exorcise them and liberate a nation and a people for a better future. History must move beyond the academy, must become a recognized part of everyday life and understanding for all those who would themselves be free from its weight.

Recently, two powerful new advocates have taken up Franklin’s call for history to come to America’s rescue, echoing many of his observations and insights for a new time and across new and different media. These two twenty-first-century black intellectuals are outside the formal precincts of the academy, yet speak explicitly about why historical scholarship and understanding must play a central part in addressing the tragedies of race in American life. They offer us new, yet in many senses familiar, ways of approaching a moment when it seems possible that both history and policy might change.

Nearly a half-century younger than Franklin, Bryan Stevenson, who grew up in segregated southern Delaware, remembers saving his money for a first youthful book purchase: From Slavery to Freedom. Stevenson’s life and work reflect the historical sensibility that characterized Franklin’s understanding of the American present. In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue.

Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration. “Burdened” by a past of racism and cruelty, “we don’t like to talk about our history,” he observes. We have been “unwilling to commit ourselves” to a necessary “process of truth and reconciliation,” so we have not succeeded in transcending our past, in confronting and abandoning its assumptions and inequities. We have been too “celebratory” about the civil rights movement; we “congratulated ourselves too quickly” that the ugliness of racism was eliminated when it continued to infuse our institutions and our attitudes.

Aside from his teaching at NYU, Stevenson’s day job is directing the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—suing to stay executions of innocent prisoners, persuading the Supreme Court that children should not be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But he has made himself a historian as well. The EJI recently issued a detailed report on the slave trade in nineteenth-century Montgomery—part of a project its website describes as

focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history.

EJI joined with the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery memorializing the domestic slave trade in which the city played such a prominent part. Now Stevenson has embarked on a new project to erect markers at the sites of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, nearly sixteen years younger than Bryan Stevenson, was born six decades after John Hope Franklin. Martin Luther King was seven years dead; much of the hope of the civil rights movement had evaporated; racism, bitterness, and a combination of militancy and despair prevailed. Coates’s father, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an initially self-taught intellectual who became an archivist of black history and created a press to share the record of those of African descent from ancient Egypt to Marcus Garvey to Attica. Paul Coates grounded his son “in history and struggle,” lessons that would make Franklin’s work seem a bit old-fashioned, conciliatory, perhaps even compromising.

It was Malcolm X who became Ta-Nehisi’s hero. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied…. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” Coates resisted white tools or rules. And he would flee the academy—dropping out of Howard without completing a degree. But he too embraced history. “My reclamation,” he wrote, “would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Perhaps, he mused, “I might write something of consequence someday.”

It would seem he has done just that. On the second page of his recent meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Coates proclaims, “The answer is American history.” His own deep immersion in the past—“I have now morphed into a Civil War buff,” he confesses—served as epiphany and impetus: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.” Searching for a deeper understanding of the forces underlying the realities of black oppression that he already knew so acutely, Coates turned to scholarship and the traditions of African-American history that John Hope Franklin had done so much to build. Coates has mastered the academic literature and from it he has come to understand that slavery was not “ancillary to American history” but “foundational.” It remains as a “ghost” all over American policy today, as Coates has demonstrated in his call for reparations to counter the enormous inequities of race reinforced by modern federal housing and zoning legislation.

In Coates’s view, whites have been urged away from their real history by myths that have hidden the violence and injustice at its core. America must reject Civil War narratives that have obscured the war’s origins in slavery, that have permitted unexamined celebration of Confederate gallantry, and that have turned the “mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and élan.” The “lie of the Civil War,” he explains, “is the lie of innocence.” It is a dream, a myth that has lulled and blinded white America as it denied and evaded so much of its past. White Americans “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.” It is the denial of this history that sustains an emollient innocence and makes the injustices of the present possible.

As John Hope Franklin learned when he undertook the research that he fashioned into From Slavery to Freedom, an understanding of history destroys innocence. And the brutal and undeniable truths of murders captured and shared on social media challenge our national presumptions of innocence as well. Can this unavoidable confrontation with the realities of our present open us in new ways to the meaning of our troubling past? Can history help relieve us once and for all of the burden of that ignorance and the evil it can produce? Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this responsibility to extend history beyond the academy? Are we as a nation at last ready to welcome the truth that can yield reconciliation?

If so, it is in no small part because of the kind of history John Hope Franklin dared to write and the ideals he represented as he walked the “tightrope” between engagement and objectivity, as he struggled to unite history with policy and meaningful change, as he sought truths to save us all. Black Lives Matter. History Matters. John Hope Franklin showed us how much they matter to each other.