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Prominent Historian, Civil Rights Activist Franklin Dies at 94

March 25, 2009 at 6:50 PM EST
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John Hope Franklin, a revered Duke University historian and scholar of the African-American experience, died Wednesday at age 94. In this 2006 interview with Gwen Ifill, Franklin reflects on his life's work.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a farewell to John Hope Franklin. The prominent historian died today in Durham, N.C., of heart failure. In 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Here are some excerpts from a conversation he had with Gwen Ifill in 2006, after the publication of his autobiography.

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. King.

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN, recipient, Presidential Medal of Freedom: 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.

GWEN IFILL: 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.

JIM LEHRER: John Hope Franklin was 94 years old.