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…

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