Was Charles Schulz a racist? Well, it all depends on your perspective.
Yesterday my cousin Jason asked if I’d seen this meme, which was created from using a still from The Peanuts Thanksgiving television special that originally aired in 1968. We got into a discussion about the Peanuts creator, the late Charles M. Schulz. I immediately defended Schulz by saying he wasn’t a racist, despite how this cartoon appears. “It all depends on perspective,” I told him.
Jason responded with reason, “That’s a good point. However, we as Black folks watched these cartoons and I did realize there was only one Black character. So, although progressive for the times, it still had a subliminal effect on everyone that watched it.”
And I agree, but accusing Charles Schulz of racism is a stretch without having all the facts in hand.
I made the mistake of clicking on the image, which took me to a Facebook page exclusively for Black people. Response after response folks vilified Charles Schulz, accusing him of racism. The problem is that without context about what was going on at the time, along with the background of how Franklin even became a Peanut, what we have is despite the progressiveness of Charles Schulz, long after his death people of color vilify him.
Here’s an example of the comments:
Was Charles Schulz a Racist or Maybe Was He a Progressive Man Who was Actually an Activist?
Was Charles Schulz a racist? I certainly get why it’s easier for many PoC to jump on the bandwagon and assume based off this meme alone that Charles Schulz was, but let’s look at what led up to the Thanksgiving television special behind the meme.
In April 1968, a Los Angeles schoolteacher named Harriet Glickman wrote to Charles Schulz about his Peanuts comic strip.
Why is this significant? Mrs. Glickman gives us a clue in the opening of her letter. Dr. King had been assassinated less than two weeks earlier. Other very significant things to consider before thinking this letter is, well, insignificant and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Mrs. Glickman was a White woman, meaning, someone who had privilege (especially in the 1960s) and had no reason to make such a request … and yet she did. She didn’t know what kind of person was on the receiving end of that letter. Was Charles Schulz a racist and that’s why he wasn’t including a Black (then called Negro), character in the Peanuts comic strip or was it simply a sign of the times?
Before pondering that, consider the expression, Sign of the Times. What was taking place in the United States and abroad that could influence Charles Schulz’s decision not to have a “Negro” character in the Peanuts comic strip?
Let’s look at a few:
The Civil Rights Movement was nearing its end, having achieved some basic rights for Negros (by no means definitive, but it was a start). Laws may change but this doesn’t mean people’s perceptions and ideologies do so at the same speed.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 to integrate public schools (Brown vs. The Board of Education), some states, like Alabama, Virginia and Oklahoma, were slow to embrace the change. (Reluctantly, they finally did in 1963.)
If you are part of an interracial couple, you already know that while interracial marriage was legal in many states prior to 1967, because there were 16 holdout states, Virginia being one of them, Mildred and Richard Loving took their case all the way to the United States Supreme Court and won. This is why on June 12 of every year, we celebrate Loving Day.
For some perspective, it was 9 months before Mrs. Glickman’s wrote her letter that interracial couples nationwide could legally marry. Well, there’s an exception. Alabama held on as long as they could and didn’t ban their anti-miscgenation laws until the year 2000!
South Africa was in in its 24th year of Apartheid. Apartheid only ended in 1991.
Following the nationwide legalization of interracial marriage, the extremely controversial movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? with Sidney Poitier and Joanna Drayton opened (in December 1967). It was the first featuring an interracial couple and if you’ve never seen it, the parents of Joanna Drayton’s character lost their minds!
Television’s first interracial kiss hadn’t yet even occurred.
All of the above are very adult themes and each one to major opposition by White Supremacists and racists. Imagine now the idea of a Negro character joining an all-White ensemble in a children’s cartoon strip! It’s “bad enough” that adults have to grapple with the idea of whether to expose themselves to these themes but now imagine racist parents trying to explain why their beloved Peanuts had a Negro child in it. Do they stop reading the comic strip to their kids / allow their kids to stop reading it? These are decisions that have to be made and not under the backdrop of today’s standards, but under the backdrop of what’s going on around the world and people’s views about integration.
Maybe now people can begin to realize the tremendous chutzpah Mrs. Glickman had and now the pressure she has placed on Charles Schulz—the beloved creator of the most popular comic strip of its time.
As you read through the following mail exchange (no email, my friends) and see for yourself. Based on the ultimate response, was Charles Schulz a racist?
And Mrs. Glickman’s reply:
And Charles Schulz’s reply:
Obviously considering it, Charles Schulz received a letter in early June 1968 from man named Kenneth C. Kelly, a “Negro” friend of Mrs. Glickman. In Mr. Kelly’s letter he reassures Schulz that by adding a Negro character to the Peanuts comic strip it won’t come off as condescending and moreover, he would not receive any criticism from the “Negro” community.
While it seems like nothing happened quickly, keep in mind it’s all about how long things take by mail at a time when people didn’t have email or even fax machines.
Given this, it didn’t take long for Charles Schulz to make up his mind. He wrote Mrs. Glickman back. It’s pretty clear her request and Mr. Kelly’s letter made big impressions on Schulz.
True to his word, Schulz introduced us all to a character named Franklin. However, rather than make a big deal out of things and call attention to himself, like all other new editions to the Peanuts gang, Franklin just appeared one day.
And the followup appeared in newspapers across the U.S. the next day.
Not only did Franklin appear on the scene and ask Charlie Brown if this was his ball, he made a more impressive sand castle than Charlie Brown had made. Charlie Brown immediately liked Franklin and asked him to come over and spend the night. Does this sound like a racist to you? Well, you’d have to be a fan know that Charlie Brown was Charles Schulz—shy, introverted and very unsure of himself.
So was Charles Schulz a racist? I suppose it depends on two things: not having all the relevant facts in hand and your perspective. In case you care, Snopes weighed in on the matter on Christmas Day 2015.
Charles Schulz was never shy about crediting Harriet Glickman for suggesting he add a Negro / Black character into the Peanuts gang. He made these letters available through his museum. And He also sent Mrs. Glickman an autographed edition of the very first strip that included Franklin.