Comment: Pop culture’s role in confronting racism

The introduction of a Black character in ‘Peanuts’ in 1968 sparked inclusion in other popular media.

By Blake Scott Ball / Special To The Washington Post

Today, the American political and social landscape seem fractured to a greater extent than at any time in recent memory. Many wonder what can be done to bridge divides, or at least to address the deep societal problems plaguing us.

An episode from another moment when American society seemed to be tearing apart — 1968 — reminds us activism can begin on the smallest scale, that focusing on popular media can enable changes that spill over and lead to transformation on a larger scale.

In the middle of 1968, a handful of comic strip fans decided to do something small to change their world. Harriet Glickman, a onetime schoolteacher turned stay-at-home mom, led an unlikely, private campaign to reshape the face of American popular media. Glickman, the daughter of Jewish immigrants and labor organizers, allied with Black neighbors and fellow activists in an effort with one clear goal: to get Charles Schulz to integrate “Peanuts,” the most read daily comic strip in the United States.

On Feb. 27, 2021, one of Glickman’s allies in this campaign died. Kenneth C. Kelly was a pioneering NASA engineer, a husband and father and a relentless advocate for fair and equal housing in California. But one of his most lasting legacies was his crucial role in Glickman’s campaign to break the color barrier in American popular media.

Personally, Schulz fully supported civil rights. In his work, however, the artist worried that writing a Black character might be patronizing or insensitive. How could he, a white, German American man from Minnesota, accurately express the voice of a Black child, he wondered.

Beginning in the spring of 1968, Glickman started writing letters to prominent newspaper cartoonists, including Schulz, whom she had never met. While Glickman had done her best to persuade the artist that an integrated “Peanuts” would be welcomed by both Black and white readers, she thought Kelly, who was Black, would be a more convincing voice.

Kelly wrote to Schulz that he doubted any Black reader would be offended by the white artist introducing a Black character. Yet, Kelly insisted, that even assuming the worst case — that it might offend a few readers — “an accusation of being patronizing would be a small price to pay for the positive results that would accrue.” A Black character in “Peanuts” “would suggest racial amity in a casual day-to-day sense,” something Kelly saw missing in popular media even in 1968.

Kelly recognized that many of the leading postwar popular media producers shared Schulz’s apprehensions. At mid-century, American media often pursued a mass audience, which meant minimizing controversy and potentially offensive material to maximize viewership or readership. While there had long been Black characters in art, film and even radio, those representations typically drew heavily on racist minstrel types that confirmed the stereotypes of a predominantly white audience.

There were exceptions, of course, notably some of the progressive stories of New York publisher EC Comics. Yet, as civil rights protest expanded in the 1950s, reflexively conservative mass media entities came to fear racial representation as potentially creating unnecessary controversy. Edgier producers, like EC Comics, lost market share and ultimately went out of business. Across American media, creators retreated from depicting Black characters at all for fear of stirring negative attention. Outside of some limited examples in television, Black characters vanished from any meaningful role in American popular media.

This was certainly a case in which exceptions proved the rule. In 1966, Bill Cosby earned the first Emmy award for a Black actor for his co-starring role in the television series “I Spy.” Yet Cosby portrayed a highly educated and upwardly mobile character with no sense of racial consciousness. Similarly, Nichelle Nichols’s portrayal of Black communications officer Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek”was literally the stuff of science fiction. On other popular television programs of the era, such as “Lassie” and “Bewitched,” the all-white casts existed in worlds apparently without any Black people at all.

But that would all change after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in the summer of 1968, the second high-profile civil rights advocate murdered that year (Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in the spring). Thanks to Kelly and Glickman’s lobbying, on July 31, 1968, Schulz broke the color barrier in American popular media with the widely publicized introduction of Franklin, a new African American friend of Charlie Brown. Just as Glickman and Kelly had predicted, Franklin was well-received, garnering no serious pushback until 1970, when a number of Southern newspaper editors protested his addition to the “Peanuts” classroom by pulling the offending daily strips from their newspapers.

Schulz’s move revealed that depicting authentic African American characters could be done without backlash and prompted other attempts at greater representation. Popular tastes were shifting, and readers increasingly welcomed a more racially diverse representation of the world. Morrie Turner, a Black cartoonist, experienced an explosion in national syndication in the summer of 1968 for his integrated comic strip “Wee Pals.” While Schulz had been met with general applause, Turner did face some harassment from letter writers; but the reaction was also overwhelmingly positive.

The positive reception of Franklin heralded a change of tastes, which prompted content creators to rethink their assumptions. Nowhere was this clearer than with Marvel Comics. In 1966, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had created an intelligent, powerful and mysterious guest star for the Fantastic Four named Black Panther. In the wake of controversy surrounding the Bay Area Black activist party, however, Marvel had attempted to rebrand the character as the “Black Leopard” to appear less controversial to white readers. But in 1973, given the clear change in popular tastes, Marvel gave Black Panther a leading role in the comic book “Jungle Action,” followed by his own regular title in 1977.

At the other major comic book company, DC Comics, famed creators Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams made a Black veteran, John Stewart, into the new Green Lantern, one of the company’s top-tier characters.

Representation continued to expand through the 1970s and 1980s, but still these characters were constrained by mostly white creators and white audiences. Shows like “The Jeffersons,” a spinoff of the popular sitcom “All in the Family,” and “The Cosby Show” featured endearing and consciously Black families but depicted well-off circumstances and often featured white writers and producers. In comics, characters like Luke Cage, Storm, Black Lightning and Cyborg greatly expanded Black representation, but their creators and writers, too, were exclusively white.

In 1993, a group of successful and ambitious Black comic book artists endeavored to change this. Derek Dingle, Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan and Michael Davis founded Milestone Media, an imprint of DC Comics that would publish Black comic book characters created and edited by Black artists. Their numerous original character titles included “Icon,” a sort of Black reinterpretation of Superman. Though the Milestone line ceased publishing in 1997, several of its characters lived on in comic and television versions of DC Comics projects. In late 2020, DC announced the return of Milestone Media to publication.

Similarly, the 21st-century rejuvenation of television has provided numerous new opportunities, not only expanding Black representation on screen, but also expanding the roles for Black artists as creators, writers and producers. Shows such as “Insecure,” “Black-ish,” “Atlanta,” “Power” and “Key and Peele” all demonstrate the continued transformation of popular media sown in the late 1960s.

Franklin, modest as he was, changed the landscape of Black representation in American popular media. In an industry that was actively fleeing diversity, Schulz and his editors dared to reverse course. But the change probably would never have occurred without the action and urging of ordinary people like Kelly, who personally knew the importance of seeing positive reflections of yourself in the world. His (and Glickman’s) efforts revealed first, the power of activism, even on a small scale. Second, they demonstrated how much enacting change in popular culture can matter; a small change can ignite a chain reaction over time, leading to better representation and an opportunity for marginalized people to have heroes and examples that look and feel relatable to the world in which they live.

Blake Scott Ball is assistant professor of history at Huntingdon College and author of the forthcoming book “Charlie Brown’s America: The Popular Politics of Peanuts.”

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