UPDATE 3/12/2015: Harriet Glickman and Ken Kelly have been the toast of Little Rock, Arkansas this week, after an invitation from the Clinton Presidential Center to come talk about their work to integrate "Peanuts."
(Harriet Glickman being interviewed by a Little Rock TV station at the Clinton Presidential Center. Image: Katherine Moore)
On the one hand, there's Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges. On the other, there's Harriet Glickman and Ken Kelly. All took part in the Civil Rights struggle. Glickman and Kelly's role was smaller — in an era before the controversy of Ferguson, they helped bring on the creation of a boy named Franklin.
In a conversation over chocolate chip cookies and coffee in the dining room of the house she's lived in for half a century, Glickman, an 88-year old retired schoolteacher, and Kelly, an 86-year-old retired JPL microwave communications engineer from Sherman Oaks, told how they convinced "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz to integrate his strip. Through their polite and candid exchange of letters and ideas, Franklin, a black kid with a father serving in Vietnam, was born.
Franklin was unspectacular as a character, but he made a huge splash. "It was 1968," Glickman said. "I was living here in Sherman Oaks with three children (including KPCC Senior Editor Paul Glickman), and the idea came to me to write the letter to Charles Schulz, asking if he would put a then-Negro [the common usage] child into his strip."
Her longtime friend Ken Kelly, an African-American who later fought to integrate local housing developments, picks up the story. "It was so common in the total media picture — movies, newspapers — the absence of Negro people was extreme, but worse, negative situations always got covered." But he liked Peanuts on the whole. "The characters and situations were beautiful."
Glickman made the first move, asking Schulz to add a black character. Schulz responded in a letter, saying of he and fellow artists, "We all would like very much to be able to do this, but each of us is afraid that it would look like we were patronizing our Negro friends. I don't know what the solution is."
But Glickman knew. She shared Schulz's letter with Kelly and another black parent, and asked them to write Schulz with their ideas. Kelly suggested Schulz create a black character as a "supernumerary" — not a hero, just a regular kid. And that's what Schulz did.
"He did it so smoothly," Kelly says. "He wasn't rocking anyone's boat, except there are those they felt the boat was being rocked."
There was a letter of protest from a newspaper editor in the Deep South, upset about the depiction of an integrated school. But there was also the letter of thanks from then-City Councilman Tom Bradley.
Of her role, Glickman says, "When I was at the museum, somebody said, 'It took courage.' No it didn't. It didn't take courage to sit in Sherman Oaks, in my comfortable home, and type a letter. Courage was little Ruby Bridges," a black girl who integrated an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. "That was courage."
(A study in courage: Ruby Bridges being escorted to school. Credit: U.S. Department of Justice)
And, Harriet Glickman says, "What we're seeing today, some of the hatred, some of the anger, the racism that still exists, it's not going to be fixed by putting a little character in a 'Peanuts' strip."
The 46-year old letters between Schulz and his gently prodding fans in L.A. are now part of the collection at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, and you can read more of them in this Mashable article.