Holding a Mirror to America: A conversation with John Hope Franklin

Acclaimed historian Dr. John Hope Franklin spoke recently at the University of Chicago on his life experience as a scholar, an activist and a person. The talk, facilitated by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, covered Franklin’s personal life and also touched on a number of connected social issues. At the end of the evening, Franklin answered questions from the audience and signed copies of his newly-published autobiography “Mirror to America.”

Franklin holds the honor of John M. Manly Professor Emeritus in History at the University of Chicago and is currently the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus at Duke University. Perhaps more importantly, he has been fighting for civil rights for nearly a century. Whether he was excelling as one of the first African Americans enrolled at Harvard, or assisting Thurgood Marshall on the famous Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, Franklin helped pave the way for African Americans in a number of areas.

Franklin detailed many of his personal experiences with combating racism throughout his 90 years during the evening’s conversation. One of his first confrontations with overt racism came in 1921, when he was only six years old. Franklin, along with his mother and sister, were put off a “whites only” train car while traveling in Oklahoma. Franklin’s mother had refused to move to the segregated car with her two young children while the train was moving, and as a result the conductor stopped the train between stations and forced them off altogether. Walking back through the woods Franklin began to cry. His mother explained to him that if he had any energy left, he should not waste it on tears, but rather use it to prove that he was as good as they.

Jackson asked Franklin how he was able to manage this type of racism without internalizing it and letting it deter him from succeeding in life. Franklin responded, “I had a policy of not letting that get to me.” He credited his mother’s advice about using his energy to push towards his goals, instead of wasting it by focusing on racism itself.

When the dialogue moved to the recent death of Rosa Parks, both Franklin and Jackson brought up some larger issues surrounding her story. The portrayal of Parks as a lowly, tired seamstress was not altogether accurate, they noted. Parks was educated and an active member of the NAACP. Franklin credited her as one of many who took a stand against segregation throughout the years, commenting that it was her courage and conviction that allowed her to make this statement at such an opportune time. “She didn’t just stumble into immortality. This was no accident,” Franklin said. He also illustrated how people spanning racial lines have fought together for civil rights, and noted that it was a “white couple” that posted bail for Rosa Parks.

The theme of racism not being a “black” or “white” problem, but an American problem, repeatedly surfaced throughout the discussion.

Franklin cited the disproportionate incarceration rate of African American males in prisons. He also explained that having a greater number of African-American men in prison than in college accentuates the image of their inferiority. He called this “a remarkable example of the failure of our own society.” Connecting this point to the current failure rates of African American children in schools, Franklin said that these youth are only giving up because they feel rejected by society. “They are a metaphor for the failure of our society,” Franklin said.

Jackson asked if desegregation has been accepted yet. “Resegregation of our schools is now back in order,” responded Franklin. Racial segregation in education, housing and other places continues to exist because of the limited respect for law in this country, he said. Franklin cited the actions of the Supreme Court during the 2000 presidential election as an example.

During questions from the audience, someone asked: “Where are the African American leaders of today?” Franklin quipped, “Where are you?” Then he explained that many times we have the view that only a handful of people lead and bring about social change, yet historically, it has rarely happened this way. Franklin explained how prominent figures throughout history worked with groups of unnamed, dedicated people, who fought for the same goals. What we need are more individuals like this today, said Franklin. “People like that don’t need to be led.”