Civil Rights Activist, Historian Discusses New Autobiography

June 15, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Historian John Hope Franklin carries his 91 years with grace and vigor, passionate about his research, his writing, and his beloved orchids.

The heart of his life story, however, is rooted in his country’s struggles with race. From his birth in a small, black Oklahoma town, through an academic career that took him from Nashville’s Fisk University to Harvard, and throughout a teacher’s, writer’s and lecturer’s life that stretched from Brooklyn College to the University of Chicago, to Duke University and several other institutions, Franklin has authored 16 books.

Chief among those titles, “From Slavery to Freedom,” a treatise on African-American history first published in 1947 and, three million copies later, now in its eighth printing.

From landmark protests in Alabama to landmark research on Brown v. the Board of Education, Franklin has appeared at many of the nation’s racial turning points. In 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Franklin’s latest book is his autobiography, “Mirror to America.”

Shaping a historian's career

GWEN IFILL: I spoke with him recently in Washington.

Dr. Franklin, thank you for joining us.

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN, Recipient, Presidential Medal ofFreedom: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Why did you become a historian?

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: There was a professor at Fisk, a young,white professor, only 12 years older than I was, who was chairman of thehistory department there and who really excited me in a way that I had neverbeen excited about a subject matter before. He taught history in a way that wasso exciting.

GWEN IFILL: That's Professor Courier?

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Professor Theodore S. Courier. And whenhe learned that I had an interest in history, he took an interest in me. And,as a matter of fact, he was the first white man that ever treated me as asocial and intellectual equal, and I was really impressed with that.

And he began to shape my career in a way that I didn't knowit could be shaped, so that I decided to become a historian then and there, andI've never regretted it.

GWEN IFILL: You've been quoted as saying that you don'tconsider yourself a black historian but a historian about African-Americans. What'sthe distinction?

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: I'm a historian of the American people,all of them, and that's what I think you have to be. You can't be a historianof blacks without distorting the relationship between blacks and whites; youcan't be a historian on whites without distorting the relationship.

They're all here together; they interact all the times. Sometimesit's not favorable or exciting or good, but the interaction is there. And youhave to take into consideration all these aspects of American history beforeyou can say that you're really a historian of the United States.

Work on a landmark case

GWEN IFILL: In the 52 years since Brown, since you won theBrown case, essentially, do you feel as if the kind of progress that you hadhoped for at the time has been made?

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: No, I don't think so. I think if, I maysay so, I think there were some of us who, believing that the Supreme Courtcould legislate, could lay down the law, could interpret the law, there weresome of us who believed that the American people would then obey the law.

And I was one -- I remember so well -- I was one who wasastounded when a great number of the senators said that they were not going toobey the Supreme Court decision. And this got us off to a start of what theycalled nullification, but of disrespect for the law, which I could notunderstand.

And the breakdown was rather widespread, and I wasdisappointed. We were celebrating the victory at a time when many southernerswere plotting to nullify the victory as though the Supreme Court had notspoken. I couldn't imagine that there would be this much disrespect for thelaw.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what you meant when you said that youneeded to have more than the law on your side in cases like this?

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Yes, you need to have more than the lawon your side. We had the law on our side now, but we didn't have the Americanpeople on our side, large segments of them. We didn't have the American people.

We didn't have southern whites on our side, and we didn'thave large numbers of northern whites on our side, as we discovered when, forexample, the effort to desegregate the schools in the North met with great,great opposition.

Overcoming racism

GWEN IFILL: Along the way, there have also been those littleindignities, as well, which so many African-Americans would probably findfamiliar. There's one that happened the night before you received the Medal ofFreedom.

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Yes. In anticipation of the receiving ofthe Medal of Freedom, I was ready to celebrate even the night before, and Iinvited to my club in Washingtona number of my friends in a private dinner which I was giving.

And then I realized that it was getting a little late, and Ithought maybe my guests who had not arrived might be downstairs wondering whereI was, and so I decided to excuse myself and go downstairs to see where they wereor if they had arrived.

And I came down the winding staircase at the Cosmos Club. Andat the bottom of the staircase, there was a white woman with a coat check inher hand. And she saw me, and she said, "Here, you go and get my coat. It'schecked."

And I was sort of shocked that she would pick me out to goand get her coat. And I said -- and I realized then that she probably thoughtthat I was there to serve. Why should I be in the Cosmos Club if I wasn't thereto serve her?

And I pulled her over. I said, "Lady, now," aspatient as I could, I said, "Lady, if you would take this check and giveit to one of the attendants here, one of the uniformed attendants, and all ofthe attendants here are in uniform, just give it to one of them and perhapswill you get your coat." And I walked away from her.

Perspective on another leader

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you about something else which youmentioned in your book, which I found just got my attention. You were talkingabout Martin Luther King, who for so many Americans personifies what the civilrights movement was, beginning, middle and end. But you wrote that you thoughtthat there was an unfortunate cult of personality that was built up around Dr.King.


GWEN IFILL: Tell me about that.

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Well, that view or that practice is apart of American confusion about what brings about change.

We do need leadership; I'm not questioning that. But whenyou place all of your stock on a particular person or even a group of people,then, I think, you are failing to see what the ordinary person's role is in thetransformation of society and the changes that can take place.

If we depend on a person, whether it's Martin Luther King orsomeone else, to lead us out of the wilderness, so to speak, our dependence isgoing to betray us because somewhere along the line we might lose that leader,as we did in 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Where would we be then? Where are we now without him? Wewere stumbling around, fumbling around in the wilderness. No, I think that wemust not place so much emphasis on a person or a leader and think about theresponsibility of all of us.

And if we need to keep our counsel and define what our roleis, that's all right, but we have a role. Everyone has a role in improving oursociety and transforming it. And if we depend on one person or even a smallnumber of people, then I think we're gambling on an eventuality that might beunfortunate.

GWEN IFILL: Final question. How far have we come inenvisioning a world beyond race?

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Oh, I think we've not come very far inenvisioning a world beyond race, even a nation beyond race. We're on our way,but we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking we're anywhere near the pointwhere blacks and whites can regard themselves as equal in every way.

We've come some distance, but we have so much farther to gothat we should be about the business of trying to get there.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. John Hope Franklin, thank you very much.