John Hope Franklin (1915-2009): Historian and Fighter for Justice

Academics and intellectuals  – and college professors in particular – are often thought of as living in an Ivory Tower – dispassionate, disconnected, and aloof from the everyday world.

And, for the most part, this reputation is deserved, especially in America, where we have often demanded a quiescence  that poses as objectivity from our academics and have little tradition of intellectuals who actively engage in the social and political struggles of their times.

But the Ivory Tower could not contain Dr. John Hope Franklin — historian, professor, and passionately engaged civil rights activistm — who died yesterday at the age of 94.

Franklin achieved a long list of firsts in his career: the first African-American president of the American Historical Association; the first black department chairman at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College; the first black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke University; the first black chairman of the University of Chicago’s history department; and the first African-American to present a paper at the segregated Southern Historical Association, one of many groups that later elected him its president.

He was also a pioneer as a historian.  His first major work, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans,” published in 1947, began the long process of establishing black Americans as dynamic actors rather than as passive victims or mere objects of America’s long struggle for social justice.

It was a struggle that he witnessed, and participated in, throughout his life.

Armed white rioters with dead African American, Tulsa, 1921.

Armed white rioters with dead African American, Tulsa, 1921.

Franklin was born on January 2, 1915, in the post-Reconstruction and Klan-controlled South – in the all black town of Rentiesville, Oklahoma – where his family moved when his father, a lawyer, was not allowed to practice law in Louisiana.  He experienced first-hand the indignities, humiliations, and fears engendered by Jim Crow laws — and saw his father’s law office burned by white racists (and probably had friends and family members killed) in the vicious Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, when as many as 3,000 African Americans were murdered by a white mob who were engaged when a black man accidentally touched a white woman in an elevator. He was also denied admission to the University of Oklahoma solely because of his race.

By 1947, Franklin had a Ph.D in history from Harvard and had moved North with an appointment as a history professor at Howard University.  He could have concentrated all of his efforts on publishing his historical research and building his academic career.

But Franklin was not content to be an Ivory Tower academic.  Instead, Franklin joined forces with both Martin Luther King’s on-the-ground grassroots civil rights movement in the South and the NAACP’s legal battle in the federal courts for integration.  Franklin advised Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Team in the cases leading to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education and marched with Dr. King in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Dr. Franklin with President Clinton, 2005.

Dr. Franklin with President Clinton, 2005.

“As a student of history,” Franklin said, “I have attempted to explain it historically, but that explanation has not been all that satisfactory. That has left me no alternative but to use my knowledge of history, and whatever other knowledge and skills I have, to present the case for change in keeping with the express purpose of attaining the promised goals of equality for all peoples.”

When President Clinton awarded Franklin the Medal of Freedom in 1995, he said that he had never confused “his role as an advocate with his role as a scholar.”

More importantly, Franklin taught us that to do justice to the role of a scholar, the scholar must also be an advocate for justice.