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Pioneer

This austere professionalism is the key to John Hope Franklin’s genuine achievements and it goes a long way toward explaining why he has not been more visible or influential in recent American historical thought. He has in fact rarely wavered from a commitment to “equanimity, dispassion, and objectivity” in his scholarly work, and it is this that gives his work a special kind of authority. If one wants to know the “facts” of African American history, one turns to Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. 2 If one wants to learn what is known about militaristic values and practices in the Old South or about southern travelers in the antebellum North, one turns to Franklin’s definitive works on those subjects.3 What one does not find is “polemics, diatribes, arguments” or, for that matter, theories, hypotheses, or speculative interpretations that are controversial precisely because they cannot be verified by the facts at hand. More often than not, however, it is just such expressions of passion and imagination that cause historical works to be noticed and discussed. For better or worse, large historical reputations are generally built on a willingness to go beyond the facts in order to make a provocative argument that is somehow relevant to contemporary political or cultural concerns. Few well-known historians practice the restraint that Franklin exemplifies, or maintain his strict commitment to objectivity.

Some historians of course write without passion—and thus seem detached and reliable—because they have no strong feelings about the subject they are investigating. Franklin, as the passage here quoted clearly shows, feels deeply about racial injustice. On occasion, he expresses himself with intensity on the subject, but he usually makes it clear that he has taken off his historian’s hat and is “blowing off steam in literary efforts.” He refers to an essay he wrote during the Jim Crow era in the South, comparing black travelers on southern trains with refugees in German occupied countries during World War II. But he has chosen not to include this piece in his collected essays. He also recalls that in a working paper that he wrote for the NAACP’s brief in Brown v. the Board of Education he “had deliberately transformed the objective data provided by historical research into an urgent plea for justice,” hoping that his “scholarship did not suffer” as a result.

Ultimately, however, there is no conflict in his mind between sound scholarship and social responsibility. Reliable information accompanied by rational, dispassionate analysis is in fact the most valuable contribution that the scholar, as such, can make to the cause of black liberation. In the 1963 essay he concluded that “the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his knowledge 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.”

Franklin’s most recent book, published a full thirty years after the essay “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar,” is a reflection on the current state and future prospects for race relations in the United States. It expresses more anger than almost anything else he has written, showing that it has been harder than ever for him to maintain dispassion and equanimity in the age of Reagan and Bush. Perhaps he is once again writing as a public advocate and is not professing history at all. Since the book is based on lectures meant to “develop the science of ethics,” Franklin is freer to render moral judgments than he feels licensed to do in strictly historical works. But his argument is deeply informed by historical knowledge and perspective, which is precisely what makes it such a devastating critique of current racial policies. The theme of the book is “the color line,” and its text is W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous pronouncement of 1903 that “the problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men.” Franklin reviews the racial policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations and concludes that the color line is still in place and is likely to be the critical problem of the twenty-first century as well.

The great illusion that stands in the way of further progress toward a colorblind society, according to Franklin, is the assumption that we have already achieved it. “Unfortunately,” he notes, “the litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, segregation, and discrimination.” But “untold millions of Americans” concluded on the basis of the legal and legislative breakthroughs of the civil rights era that the problem was solved: “Thus, they reasoned, now that African Americans enjoyed equal protection of the laws, they needed no special protection of the laws.” The result was to block the kind of policies, such as effective affirmative action, that might contribute to the achievement of a genuinely color-blind society.

Neither the courts nor the Congress nor the president can declare by fiat, resolution, or executive order that the United States is a color-blind society. They can only facilitate a movement in that direction by discharging their duties in a way that reflects their commitment to such a goal. From that point on, it is the people of all colors who must work in every way possible to attain that goal. Those who insist that 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.

In short, one might conclude, a new kind of American racism takes the form of a denial that racism continues to be a problem in American society. That an overtly color-blind ideology affirming legal and political equality, while blacks remain mired in a state of social and economic inferiority, can itself be a form of racism is a notion that most white Americans find very difficult to accept; but it is self-evident to Franklin, an eminently reasonable man who does not jump to conclusions or feel the need to engage in militant rhetoric. Clearly, there is great disagreement between white and black America on the question of how much progress has been made in race relations. Little further progress can be made until white Americans hear what Franklin is saying and recognize its validity.

It would be condescending, if not unjust, to limit a discussion of Franklin’s life and work to showing how his career exemplifies the problems and virtually inescapable public commitments of the black scholar. The seriousness with which he takes his vocation as a professional historian invites a further effort to assess his importance in American historical scholarship. As Franklin shows, especially in his 1979 essay on D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation he firmly believes that there is a clear and critical distinction between historical propaganda and historical scholarship. True historians seek the truth and let the chips fall where they may; propagandists claiming to be historians “have sought out those historical episodes that support some contemporary axe they have to grind” or “look for ways to justify the social and public policy that they and like-minded persons advocate.”

For Franklin, “the effort to reconstruct what actually happened in an earlier era demands an honesty and integrity that elevate the study of history to a noble enterprise.” It follows that historical knowledge is to some degree progressive. One generation does not simply make up a past of its own that is no better than the one fashioned by its predecessors; it also adds to what is definitely known. These propositions, once accepted by most working historians in theory, if not necessarily in practice, are now controversial. Postmodern theorists have questioned the existence of a reality or set of objective facts external to the historian’s “discourse” against which its truthfulness can be measured. In short, history is increasingly viewed as a form of fiction. Although difficult philosophical problems undoubtedly arise over the criteria of historical truth, the practice of history as a scholarly discipline and its usefulness as a source of wisdom or a guide to action depend, in my view, on an acceptance of Franklin’s principles as necessary conventions or pragmatic truths, if not as absolutes. If we cannot prove that the Holocaust revisionists are wrong in some inarguable way, we are clearly in deep trouble.

2.

John Hope Franklin’s most important contribution to the growth of historical knowledge and the reconsideration of the American past undoubtedly derives from his writings on Reconstruction. He had a major part in the “revisionist” effort to refute the pro-Southern and essentially racist view of the immediate post—Civil War era that dominated American historical consciousness from the turn of the century until the 1960s (and beyond if we are thinking abut popular historical mythology). Franklin was in some ways preeminent among those who challenged the venerable stereotypes of ignorant, unintelligent former slaves being induced by corrupt carpet-baggers and scalawags (“disloyal” southern whites) to insult and oppress the decent white people of Dixie to the point where they were forced to use violence to preserve “civilization.”

Franklin may not have received the credit that he deserves for this achievement. His method, as might be expected, has been to discredit the older historiography for its partisanship or lack of objectivity. In a 1948 review essay republished in Race and History, he demolished E. Merton Coulter’s The South During Reconstruction by demonstrating in painstaking fashion that Coulter had used his evidence selectively, made generalizations that his evidence would not support, misquoted or distorted some of the sources that he did use, and had been “injudicious” in his lurid and obviously biased descriptions of the performance of black voters and office holders.^4

Franklin went on to write his own short history of the period, Reconstruction After the Civil War, published in 1961.5 This was the first synthesis of the revisionist scholarship on Reconstruction and should have made Franklin the acknowledged leader among Reconstruction historians. But here, I suspect, Franklin’s integrity and commitment to objectivity got in the way. Trying to supply the “judiciousness” that Coulter lacked, he refrained from overstating the positive aspects of Reconstruction or simply reversing the heroes and villains of the older historiography. Carpetbaggers and scalawags were in Franklin’s account a diverse lot about whose virtues and vices it was difficult to generalize. He exonerated the African American freedmen from the extreme charges of incompetence and immorality that had characterized the older historiography. But he conceded that most of the ex-slaves “were without the qualifications to participate effectively in a democracy”—although in this respect, he noted tellingly, they were little different from the enfranchised recent immigrants of the northern cities.6 The political role of the freedmen was in fact modest. Since no southern state governments were actually under black control, African Americans had only a limited responsibility for what happened. Black political leadership he described as moderate and conciliatory rather than radical and militant. The black leaders were primarily interested in formal citizens’ rights and educational opportunities rather than redirecting wealth or the guarantee of “social equality” through the elimination of all forms of racial segregation.

While far less negative than the accounts of previous historians, Franklin’s view of the black role in Reconstruction had relatively little of the heroic about it. His work was not seen as offering a perfect model for black civil rights protesters of the 1960s. Subsequent writers on Reconstruction had a greater dramatic effect and somewhat obscured Franklin’s earlier achievement by promoting a new Reconstruction myth. The events of the 1860s and 1870s were now presented as a kind of dress rehearsal for those of a century later, with blacks and some of their white allies acting as modern freedom fighters. Whether these Reconstruction freedom fighters had integrationist or black nationalist tendencies depended on the ideological predilections of the historian.

Fortunately, Franklin’s central contribution to the modern reconsideration of Reconstruction should become clear to anyone who reads The Facts of Reconstruction, a collection of essays in his honor by those among his students who have worked on Reconstruction, as well as two other scholars who have been influenced by his work. The title is significant; it reflects Franklin’s faith that careful and precise historical investigation can establish what actually happened apart from any gloss that the historian might wish to put on it. Each contributor takes a single aspect of Reconstruction and uses as a point of departure Franklin’s treatment of it. Reconstruction After the Civil War is described by the editors as “the first comprehensive response to William A. Dunning’s Reconstruction, Political and Economic,” which was the central text of the pro-southern traditionalists. All of the essays reflect Franklin’s own historical methods: they sift the facts in order to arrive at the truth with a minimum of ax-grinding. I was particularly impressed by Michael Les Benedict’s essay on “Reform Republicans and the Retreat from Reconstruction” and Michael Perman’s on “Counter Reconstruction: The Role of Violence in Southern Redemption”; but all of the pieces are of high quality.

The contributors sometimes review the work of the master by uncovering new facts that require modifying his conclusions, but Michael Perman, one of Franklin’s most accomplished students, finds that the emphasis Franklin put on white violence against blacks in the overthrow of Reconstruction is more worthy of respect than subsequent historical accounts concentrating on the internal weaknesses of the Southern Republican party have led us to believe. In general, the essayists convey the impression that Franklin’s book on Reconstruction has stood up remarkably well for a work published more than thirty years ago, a vindication of Franklin’s unwillingness to subordinate “the facts” to the ideological needs of the hour. The general accounts of Reconstruction written during the civil rights era are now likely to seem more dated or timebound than Franklin’s study. The “postrevisionism” of the 1970s and 1980s often reached conclusions similar to Franklin’s—for example, about the limits of Reconstruction radicalism—but (too often) without acknowledging his work as precedent.

John Hope Franklin is a historian’s historian, a scholar who has stuck to the ideal of a historical truth beyond ideology and done so more effectively than many whose political passions were weaker than his but whose work nevertheless suffered more from distortions resulting from partisanship of one kind or another. Refusing to endorse fashionable theories and ideologies, he has attempted to leave a legacy of reliable, truthful history. At the same time, he has clearly suffered deeply from the pain of racial discrimination and defamation. In his strictly historical works, he has contained his anger and frustration in an almost heroic fashion. When such a man tells us forthrightly, as he does in The Color Line, that race relations in the United States have reached an abysmal state and that the successful conservative movement of the recent past is largely responsible for perpetuating and even deepening the color line, the time has come to give up illusions of inevitable progress toward racial equality and realize that vigorous new actions and initiatives are required.

But Franklin’s message for historians of black America, of the South, and of race relations is that they will betray their callings and be less than useful to future generations if they devote their scholarship—as distinguished from the valuable contributions they might make to the current debate on race by speaking out as well-informed citizens—entirely to the immediate task of discrediting the new racists. The path that John Hope Franklin proposes for historians may be extremely difficult to follow, but his own example reveals that it can be done.

  1. 2

    Knopf, sixth edition, 1987.

  2. 3

    The Militant South, 1800–1860 (Harvard University Press, 1956); A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North (Louisiana State University Press, 1976)

  3. 5

    University of Chicago Press, as a contribution to the Chicago History of American Civilization.

  4. 6

    Reconstruction After the Civil War, pp. 86–87.

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