John Hope Franklin: Miles to Go Before He Sleeps

Historians in the News

(Historian and civil rights activist John Hope Franklin explains how the movement toward Martin Luther King's dream has been significant—that we can expect a black president 'soon'—but 'not nearly as effective as it should be.')

The life of John Hope Franklin—as poignantly reflected in his autobiography “Mirror to America”(Farrar Straus Giraux)—is not just the story of a single life, but also serves as a chronicle of race relations in 20th century America. Born in 1915 in an all-black town in Oklahoma, Franklin was the youngest of four children raised by college-educated parents. They taught him the importance of education, hard work and most of all dignity. At a time when Jim Crow segregated the South and the Supreme Court’s separate-but-equal ruling justified inferior schools and back-of-the-bus seating for African Americans, Franklin’s parents had the courage to instill in their children the conviction that “no white person was any better than they.” As an activist, author, historian, and the head of President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, Franklin has spent a lifetime teaching that lesson to others.

He assisted Thurgood Marshall prepare the Supreme Court case for 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, which ended up desegregating schools in America. He marched for civil rights in Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. He authored 15 books on history and race relations. Yet on the very night he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995—the highest honor bestowed upon an American civilian—he found himself in the ironic position of directing a woman to the coat check attendant after she handed him her ticket stub and demanded her coat. Currently the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University, Franklin, 92, remains committed to educating the public. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, he shared his views on civil rights, education, and race relations with NEWSWEEK's Karen Fragala Smith. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Brown v. the Board of Education changed the law and made history, but what does it take for a society to eliminate discrimination from people’s hearts and minds?
John Hope Franklin: You don’t need to change their hearts; you need to change their practice. Here’s what the problem is. The Supreme Court decision was handed down on the 17th of May 1954, and what was the reaction of almost a third of the Senate? They challenged people not to obey the Supreme Court Decision. In other words, it was better to become outlaws than to obey a decision with which they disagreed. If you have people in responsible positions like the Senate not obeying the law, then what chance do you have of Joe [Citizen] obeying the law?...

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