Politics

Martin Luther King, Charles Schultz and the Power of Ideas

“As we express gratitude today for his commitment to correct principles, let us renew our commitment as a nation to protecting the rights of all to full equality, and to free expression, free speech, and free exchange of ideas.  That’s what makes America great.”

It had never occurred to me to ask why Franklin was introduced to Peanuts.  I knew only that at some point in my childhood, he just showed up.  It was as natural as when Ricky and Nate showed up in the gifted class at my elementary school.

Being children, we didn’t ask how it happened, we just wanted to know about the new kids.  We knew they were different, of course.  We didn’t need preparation for that, either, the way another teacher had prepared us for a (gasp) Jewish student the previous year.

Learning About Judaism

She stood up in front of the class the day before Merrie’s arrival, and told us that we would be getting a new student. Merrie was Jewish, which made her somehow different.  Fortunately for us all, it went over our heads – she was just the new kid to us.

We learned about Judaism when Merrie brought a bright, shiny foil-wrapped Star of David to hang on the class Christmas tree.  She explained in a very matter-of-fact way what it meant to be Jewish.  Being kids, we accepted her and her beliefs in the same matter-of-fact way.  When my brother and her sister (big kids – in junior high) developed a mutual crush, it was remarkable only because we thought it was shameful to have a crush.

Integration Without Fanfare

But back to Ricky and Nate.  This time, the teacher said nothing.  They just showed up one day in class – both of them on the same day.

What struck us all more than their skin color were their manners.

What struck us all more than their skin color were their manners.  When the teacher called the roll, Nate got out of his desk, stood up straight, said “Present,” and sat down.  We were agog, and felt somehow provincial; all we ever did was say “here,” without moving.

Both boys said “Yes Ma’am” and “No Ma’am,” in answer to questions from the teacher.  That only lasted a day or two, and then they quickly fit in.  They always retained a very educated, careful manner of speaking, which seemed strange to us. But they were forgiven for it because they were great athletes, and because they were unfailingly nice.

Franklin

Franklin showed up in Peanuts the same way Ricky and Nate showed up, and we all accepted him the same way.  Peanuts was the dominant cartoon strip from the 1960s until the 1980s, and continued syndication long after the death of its creator, Charles M. Schultz.  David Kamp wrote in The New York Times over the weekend that Schultz introduced Franklin as a direct response to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK, Peanuts and the Power of Ideas
Charles M. Schultz

Kamp wrote that the idea originated with a woman named Harriet Glickman, from Southern California, who took it upon herself to write to Schultz to ask him to introduce a black character.  At first Schultz said no.  He liked the idea, but thought it would look like social engineering, and audiences would reject it.

But Glickman persisted, and Schultz was convinced that he could pull it off.  So Franklin entered without fanfare, meeting Charlie Brown by returning an errant beach ball.  From that time on, he made periodic appearances in the strip, persistent but unobtrusive.

The Power of Ideas

That is the way deep change happens in society.  Revolutions provoke sharp changes, but can be undone by the backswings of the pendulum of history.  Permanent changes take place in small steps, by small means, over time.  They are driven by principles, by ideas, by free expression.

It is possible to kill a man, but not to kill an idea.

The violent racist who murdered Dr. King no doubt thought he was ending racial integration.  He hoped to maintain the status quo, and keep African Americans as a permanent underclass.  But today, Dr. King is honored as one of the great American heroes, while by contrast nearly nobody remembers his murderer’s name.  It is possible to kill a man, but not to kill an idea.  His death put the martyr’s seal on the proposition that all men truly are created equal, and did more to hasten integration and equality than any law passed by Congress.

Like all humans, Dr. King had flaws.  But he is honored today because of the virtue of his principles and his steadfast commitment to them.  He was martyred for those principles and that commitment, even though they were firmly anchored in the American tradition.  As we express gratitude today for his commitment to correct principles, let us renew our commitment as a nation to protecting the rights of all to full equality, and to free expression, free speech, and free exchange of ideas.  That’s what makes America great.

Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department. He is a director at the Richard Richards Foundation.

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