Tuesday, April 14, 2009

African American Historian John Hope Franklin Leaves Legacy of Research & Struggle

African American Historian John Hope Franklin Leaves Legacy of Research and Struggle

Franklin contributed enormously to reconstructing black history in the U.S.

by Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire

African American historian John Hope Franklin died on March 25, 2009 in Durham, North Carolina. During the course of a professional career that lasted for over seven decades, Franklin published several books and numerous articles aimed at the reconstruction of African American history and its relationship to the development of the United States.

Since Professor Franklin's death many tributes have been paid to him from the various academic institutions and organizations that he was afilliated with over the years. Franklin achieved many awards and distinctions within the academic and political circles in the United States. However, his own personal history is very much intertwined with the African American struggle against racism and national oppression over a period that extended from the early 20th century to the first decade of the 21st century.

Franklin was born in Rentiesville, Oklahoma on January 2, 1915. He was named after the well-known African American educator and civil rights advocate, John Hope, who worked for years in the state of Georgia. The grandson of slaves, Franklin witnessed first-hand the impact of institutional discrimination in Oklahoma during the 1920s.

During the latter decades of the 19th century, tens of thousands of African Americans migrated to Oklahoma and Kansas from the former slave states of the South. Many of these migrants came from Tennessee and Mississippi where Jim Crow and the racial terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan created highly oppressive conditions for the African American people. Consequently, as an act of self-determination and resistance, many fled the South and headed to territories in Kansas and Oklahoma between the late 1870s through the 1890s.

Franklin's father became an attorney and worked on behalf of African Americans affected by racism during the early part of the 20th century. His father was a survivor of the so-called Tulsa Riot of 1921, when white racist mobs, organized by law-enforcement officials and businessmen, attacked the African American community killing 300 people and destroying 191 black-owned businesses, known at the time as "Black Wall Street."

Franklin testified before a Congressional hearing in 2007 about the impact of this incident and the historical amnesia surrounding its legacy. He stated that: " My father was born in the Indian territory and grew up in Oklahoma. He lived through the Tulsa race riot in 1921. I moved to Tulsa when I was ten years old, just four years after the Tulsa riot, and witnessed first-hand the impact the riot had on Tulsa...."

He continued his testimony by quoting from his contribution to the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Riot of 1921. Franklin stated that: "By any standard, the Tulsa race riot of 1921 is one of the great tragedies of Oklahoma history.

"Walter White, one of the nation's foremost experts on racial violence, who visited Tulsa during the week after the riot, was shocked by what had taken place. 'I am able to state' he said, 'that the Tulsa riot, in sheer brutality and willful destruction of life and property, stands without parallel in America.' Indeed, for a number of observers through the years, the term “riot” itself seems somehow inadequate to describe the violence and conflagration that took place." (Legal History Blog, May 1, 2007)

Franklin's experience as a youth made him determined to pursue a career as a historian. He attended the Booker T. Washington High School as a teenager in Tulsa. He would attend and graduate from the historically-black Fisk University in 1935 in Nashville, Tennessee. He was admitted to Harvard University later where he received both a Masters and Ph.D in history in 1936 and 1941 respectively.

He taught at various institutions including Fisk, St. Augustine's College, and North Carolina College. He landed a faculty position at Howard University in 1947 and remained there until 1956. In 1947, while at Howard, he published his most well-known book, "From Slavery to Freedom," which chronicled African American history from the 17th Century to the post-slavery period.

In 1956, Franklin was offered the chair of the history department at Brooklyn College, the first person of color to hold such a position at a historically white institution. He remained at Brooklyn College until 1964, when he went to the University of Chicago where he taught and eventually became chair of the history department there.

Speaking Out Against McCarthyism and Racism

Perhaps the most significant act of defiance on the part of Professor Franklin was his defense of W.E.B. DuBois during the Cold War, anti-communist hysteria of the early 1950s.

DuBois, who had been openly criticized by the ruling class for his involvement in the peace and anti-colonial struggles of the period, was indicted by the federal government in the early 1950s for ostensibly being a proponent of subversive beliefs. Although DuBois was acquitted of the charges amid a national campaign in his defense, his reputation was tarnished by the corporate press and its surrogates. However, Franklin refused to go along with the witch-hunt and spoke out against the false accusations made against his mentor, Dr. DuBois.

David Levering Lewis, a Purlitzer Prize-winning historian stated that he became aware of Franklin's courage when he was conducting research for a biography of DuBois. Professor Lewis said that Franklin's "courage during that period in the 1950s when DuBois became an un-person, when many progressives were tarred and feathered with a brush of subversion, John Hope Franklin was a rock; he was loyal to his friends. In the case of W.E.B. DuBois, Franklin spoke out in his defense, not about DuBois' communism, but of the right of an intellectual to express ideas that were not popular."

Lewis continued by explaining that: "I find that admirable. It was a high risk to take and we may be heading again into a period when the free concourse of ideas in the academy will have a price put upon it. In the final years of an active teaching career, I will have John Hope Franklin's example of high scholarship, great courage and civic activism." (Black Issues in Higher Education, Dec. 20, 2004)

In his later years, Franklin would be appointed by U.S. President Bill Clinton to chair a commission to examine the state of race relations in the United States. It was during this period of the second Clinton administration that the 1921 Tulsa racial disturbances became a focus of a commission study which concluded that the survivors were due reparations for their pain and suffering. Nonetheless, there was never any agreement over what the form of reparations would involve. Franklin rejected the notion that a mere apology for these racist attacks would be sufficient.

Franklin gave an interview with the Independent Weekly in Durham that was published on April 18, 2007. He said that the apologies issued by state governments in the South for the institution of slavery fell far short of bringing about racial reconciliation in the United States.

When asked his opinion about the apology issued by the North Carolina Assembly, Franklin responded that: "It's going to become epidemic now. People are running around apologizing for slavery. What about that awful period since slavery—Reconstruction, Jim Crow and all the rest? And what about the enormous wealth that was built up by black labor? If I was sitting on a billion dollars that someone had made when I sat on them, I probably would not be slow to apologize, if that's all it takes. I think that's little to pay for the gazillions that black people built up—the wealth of this country—with their labor, and now you're going to say I'm sorry I beat the hell out of you for all these years? That's not enough. They ought to develop some kind of modus operandi that they can do something else—something to absolve themselves of three centuries of guilt from which they are the direct beneficiaries." (Weekly Independent, April 18, 2007)

Reflecting on his experience in heading the commission on race relations during the concluding years of the Clinton administration, Franklin, in the same above-mentioned interview, indicated that real reconciliation must involve the willingness of the ruling class to give up the wealth gained through the exploitation of African American people.

Franklin commented that: "When I was chairman of [Bill Clinton's] president's advisory board on race, I found very few groups that wanted to acknowledge that they had made mistakes in the past, and that it would be well to reconsider them and apologize for them—very seldom did I find any group that was willing to do that.

"I'm not at all certain that we can find any groups that want to give up any property or any resources that they've gained through the years as a result of the way in which they acquired these properties and so forth. They simply don't want to think about it or to do anything about it. And if they do, in this case, I would be delighted, but surprised."

During the last years of his professional career, Professor Franklin worked at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He retired in 1995 and became professor emeritus. In recent years he published a biography of his father and continued to speak out on race relations in the United States.

Franklin's Legacy and the Role of African American History

African American historical studies are essential in both understanding and reframing the way in which American history has taken shape over the last four centuries. In this respect, John Hope Franklin has made a monumental contribution to the working class and nationally oppressed peoples in the United States and internationally.

Without a proper appreciation of the role of slavery, reconstruction, institutional racism and the struggles against these forms of oppression, there can be no genuine movement to create a society based on equality and the right to self-determination for the oppressed.

The understanding of African American history is especially significant not only for blacks in the United States, but for white working class people as well, who have often been mislead by the ruling class into believing that their interests do not necessarily coincide with those of the black working class. In many cases throughout American history, it has been the African American people through their struggles that have advanced the social conditions of working class and poor whites who are also subjected to economic exploitation.

Consequently, a deeper understanding of African American history can play a pivotal role in revitalizing the struggle inside the United States. As Franklin stated in the Independent Weekly interview of 2007, "Race relations are so central to the history and well-being of this country that they cannot be overlooked. If we're talking about terror, we can't fight terror without doing something about race because that divides the country and weakens the country; we can't do anything about education unless we look at it across the board, for everybody; and the same thing is true with all the other problems that we face, including global warming. I think it's very central to a civilized community and we needn't bother about terrorism if we can't learn to live together black and white, brown and whatever else color [we are]."
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. He has been a student of the life and workds of John Hope Franklin for many years.

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