|Originally Aired: June 15, 2006
Civil Rights Activist, Historian Discusses New Autobiography
|John Hope Franklin, a descendent of slaves and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in civil rights, talks about his new autobiography.|
GWEN IFILL: Historian John Hope Franklin carries his 91
years with grace and vigor, passionate about his research, his writing, and his
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 of
Freedom: 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 the
history department there and who really excited me in a way that I had never
been excited about a subject matter before. He taught history in a way that was
GWEN IFILL: That's Professor Courier?
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Professor Theodore S. Courier. And when
he 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 a
social and intellectual equal, and I was really impressed with that.
And he began to shape my career in a way that I didn't know
it could be shaped, so that I decided to become a historian then and there, and
I've never regretted it.
GWEN IFILL: You've been quoted as saying that you don't
consider yourself a black historian but a historian about African-Americans. What's
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 historian
of blacks without distorting the relationship between blacks and whites; you
can't be a historian on whites without distorting the relationship.
They're all here together; they interact all the times. Sometimes
it's not favorable or exciting or good, but the interaction is there. And you
have to take into consideration all these aspects of American history before
you 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 the
Brown case, essentially, do you feel as if the kind of progress that you had
hoped for at the time has been made?
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: No, I don't think so. I think if, I may
say so, I think there were some of us who, believing that the Supreme Court
could legislate, could lay down the law, could interpret the law, there were
some 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 was
astounded when a great number of the senators said that they were not going to
obey the Supreme Court decision. And this got us off to a start of what they
called nullification, but of disrespect for the law, which I could not
And the breakdown was rather widespread, and I was
disappointed. We were celebrating the victory at a time when many southerners
were plotting to nullify the victory as though the Supreme Court had not
spoken. I couldn't imagine that there would be this much disrespect for the
GWEN IFILL: Is that what you meant when you said that you
needed to have more than the law on your side in cases like this?
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Yes, you need to have more than the law
on your side. We had the law on our side now, but we didn't have the American
people 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't
have large numbers of northern whites on our side, as we discovered when, for
example, the effort to desegregate the schools in the North met with great,
GWEN IFILL: Along the way, there have also been those little
indignities, as well, which so many African-Americans would probably find
familiar. There's one that happened the night before you received the Medal of
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Yes. In anticipation of the receiving of
the Medal of Freedom, I was ready to celebrate even the night before, and I
invited to my club in Washington
a number of my friends in a private dinner which I was giving.
And then I realized that it was getting a little late, and I
thought maybe my guests who had not arrived might be downstairs wondering where
I was, and so I decided to excuse myself and go downstairs to see where they were
or if they had arrived.
And I came down the winding staircase at the Cosmos Club. And
at the bottom of the staircase, there was a white woman with a coat check in
her hand. And she saw me, and she said, "Here, you go and get my coat. It's
And I was sort of shocked that she would pick me out to go
and get her coat. And I said -- and I realized then that she probably thought
that I was there to serve. Why should I be in the Cosmos Club if I wasn't there
to serve her?
And I pulled her over. I said, "Lady, now," as
patient as I could, I said, "Lady, if you would take this check and give
it to one of the attendants here, one of the uniformed attendants, and all of
the attendants here are in uniform, just give it to one of them and perhaps
will 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 you
mentioned in your book, which I found just got my attention. You were talking
about Martin Luther King, who for so many Americans personifies what the civil
rights movement was, beginning, middle and end. But you wrote that you thought
that there was an unfortunate cult of personality that was built up around Dr.
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Tell me about that.
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Well, that view or that practice is a
part of American confusion about what brings about change.
We do need leadership; I'm not questioning that. But when
you 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 the
transformation of society and the changes that can take place.
If we depend on a person, whether it's Martin Luther King or
someone else, to lead us out of the wilderness, so to speak, our dependence is
going 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? We
were stumbling around, fumbling around in the wilderness. No, I think that we
must not place so much emphasis on a person or a leader and think about the
responsibility of all of us.
And if we need to keep our counsel and define what our role
is, that's all right, but we have a role. Everyone has a role in improving our
society and transforming it. And if we depend on one person or even a small
number of people, then I think we're gambling on an eventuality that might be
GWEN IFILL: Final question. How far have we come in
envisioning a world beyond race?
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Oh, I think we've not come very far in
envisioning 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 point
where blacks and whites can regard themselves as equal in every way.
We've come some distance, but we have so much farther to go
that we should be about the business of trying to get there.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. John Hope Franklin, thank you very much.
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Thank you.