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Is this your beach ball, Charlie Brown?

Civil rights advocate Harriet Glickman recalls during SH event efforts to include first black character in famous ‘Peanuts’ comic strip

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Is this your beach ball, Charlie Brown?

An interpretation of Franklin Armstrong’s debut in the Peanuts comic strip in 1968

An interpretation of Franklin Armstrong’s debut in the Peanuts comic strip in 1968

Photo by Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune

An interpretation of Franklin Armstrong’s debut in the Peanuts comic strip in 1968

Photo by Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune

Photo by Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune

An interpretation of Franklin Armstrong’s debut in the Peanuts comic strip in 1968

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On July 31, 1968, readers of the popular Peanuts comic strip may have been surprised to open the newspaper and see the introduction of the first black character side-by-side with Charlie Brown and Snoopy. In the debut comic panel, Franklin Armstrong, a new and unannounced character, walks up to Charlie Brown and asks him if his beach ball had floated out into the sea.

At first glance, this brief cartoon strip seems fairly standard and not out of the ordinary. However, it marked a milestone in the countless efforts to desegregate America in the 1960s.

Officials at the American University of Health Sciences (AUHS) in Signal Hill hosted an event on Nov. 17 where Harriet Glickman, 92, a retired school teacher, spoke to attendees about how her concern for change during the height of the civil rights movement helped kickstart the idea of Franklin.

The halls of the AUHS were adorned with Peanuts memorabilia. Attendees were treated to an assortment of foods and drinks, as they watched Glickman read Peanuts books to children who were invited to come in before the main presentation. AUHS officials hosted the event to celebrate individuals who have made a difference in society.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, activists began protesting during much of the civil rights movement for the inclusion of African-Americans and other minorities into segregated cities in the U.S., Glickman said. Despite attempts for peaceful protests, there were many instances of violence.

Photo by Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune
Officials at the American University of Health Sciences in Signal Hill invited Harriet Glickman to speak Nov. 17 about her part in the creation of Franklin Armstrong, a character of the Peanuts comic strip. Glickman said the demonstrations for desegregation in the 1960s inspired her to write to Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts, to integrate a black character into the comic strip.

Glickman grew up in a time where segregated communities were scattered throughout the nation. There were restaurants, barbershops, hotels and grocery stores that only catered to black people or white people separately. People’s skin color defined what public buses, water fountains or schools they could use and attend.

“My sister and I were raised in a family where respect, love and caring for others– no matter who, no matter what color they are or religion they followed– was taught,” she said.

Glickman said the racially triggered murder of Emmet Till in 1955, the lunch counter sit-in movements in 1960 and the Freedom Rider protests in 1961 inspired her to challenge perceptions of a segregated society.

It wasn’t until the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 that Glickman decided to act.
“I didn’t just say one day, ‘Well, I’ll do something about it,’” Glickman said. “It was an accumulation of all of the things that I’ve learned through the years.”

Glickman said she decided to reach out to someone who could influence others. She chose to reach out to cartoonists– one in particular: Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip.

In her letter to Schulz, Glickman called for the inclusion of a black character into the comic. She wrote that having a black child run, play and interact with other white children in an innocent environment could have a positive impact on others. At first, Schulz was interested in the idea, but he worried that white cartoonists portraying a black character could be considered as “patronizing.”

“The fact that he said, ‘I really like the idea,’ that’s what said to me, ‘OK, go a little further,’” Glickman told the Signal Tribune.

She decided to send the letters between her and Schulz to her African-American friends, who all made suggestions as to what this new character should be and look like.

After more exchanges of letters between Glickman and Schulz, the cartoonists who worked on the Peanuts finally added Franklin to Charlie Brown’s group of friends.

Following Franklin’s debut, Glickman received letters from various readers of the comics thanking her for the idea to include a black character.

“Not everybody liked this in the south,” Glickman said. “A lot of people didn’t like Charlie Brown sitting in a classroom with Franklin.”

Glickman said that despite the new character’s criticism, Franklin made a positive impact on some readers.
During the event, Glickman read a portion of a letter that Schulz received from a black U.S. Army sergeant who was deployed in Vietnam in the 1960s. The soldier, identified as Franklin Feeman, wrote to Schulz telling him that the integration of a black character in the Peanuts comic raised the morale of the troops fighting overseas.

Since his debut in 1968, Franklin has appeared in various forms of Peanuts media, including books, television shows and movies. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the character’s creation. In the animated versions of his character, Franklin has been voiced by 19 actors.

One of those voice actors, Marleik “Mar Mar” Walker, was present during the Nov. 17 event and joined Glickman as she spoke to the audience. He voiced Franklin’s character for the digitally animated “Peanuts” movie in 2015. Walker, 16, spoke to the Signal Tribune about his character’s impact.

Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune
Marleik “Mar Mar” Walker (left) and Harriet Glickman (right) talk about Franklin Armstrong, the first black character introduced in the Peanuts comic strip, during an event on Nov. 17 at the American University of Health Sciences in Signal Hill. The event celebrated individuals that have made an impact on society. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Glickman wrote to Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts, to integrate a black character in 1968.

“I didn’t think it was that deep because I thought there were always African-American characters in the Peanuts,” Walker said. “I was born in 2002; that’s all I grew up on. But as I further did my research and found out more about Ms. Harriet Glickman and all the stuff she did, I was amazed.”

Walker said the other cast members of the film began to realize the depth of Franklin’s origin after the film was released.

“I felt like it was my responsibility to tell my friends and family,” he said.

Walker added that playing a character like Franklin has helped him understand his roots. His mother commented that Walker was venturing into music production and had a new film coming out soon. Despite his progressing career, Walker said Franklin helps him take a step back and realize the struggles of the civil rights movement.

“It’s changed me just to know where we come from,” he said. “Me being able to play Franklin was a huge opportunity, and I’m glad that I went through this.”

During the event, AUHS Co-founder Gregory Johnson emceed Glickman’s presentation. He said that Franklin’s introduction into mainstream media is important for young audiences.

“People need models,” he said. “You want inclusion? The best way to get inclusion, the best way to break down segregation is to actually have someone else that they can see that is making a difference, and then they start believing they can too.”

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Is this your beach ball, Charlie Brown?