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The Road From Rentiesville
The greatest historian of the black experience in America speaks of what has changed during his long life, and what has not. An Interview With John Hope Franklin.
February/March 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 1
How did you feel about Franklin Roosevelt, who in many ways was so disappointing on civil rights issues but who did help recast the entire black vote in the country?
Everything is relative. That’s what’s so interesting and in some ways tragic about it. He was disappointing. But he was disappointing when you look back more than he seemed in 1936 or 1940. What did you have before him? You see? I mean, he wasn’t doing anything about housing and all kinds of things, but we realize this in retrospect. And the Black Cabinet was a farce, when you think about it now. But then nobody had even been on the same side of the street where the White House was. So it looked pretty good. The crumbs that you grab for when you’re hungry are unworthy of you, but they’re all you’ve got.
Over the years, as historians, we both have played the game where we’re asked to rate the Presidents. So here it comes again. Who would you rank as the three or four greatest Presidents in our history?
Well, I would put Lincoln very high. And despite what I said about FDR, I’d have to put him high. This is not on the basis of his race policies at all, which I now for the most part abhor. You know, I’m gaining more and more respect for George Washington [laughs] . I really am. It might seem strange, but I think it’s from comparing him with Jefferson, and Jefferson falls short every time I compare him with anybody. In addition to my misgivings about him as a man, as a human being, I have problems with him as a President. If I were going to give him credit, it would not be for his Presidency as much as for what he did before his Presidency—for writing the Declaration of Independence, for example. I would put Lyndon Johnson high up, if I didn’t have to deal with Vietnam.
There’s been quite a lot of publicity recently about renaming certain public institutions, such as George Washington High School, because that President was a slaveholder.
No, I’m not in favor of that. Washington, despite being a slaveholder, is clearly the father of the country. He held the country together, he was the symbol of unity in those early days, and I think he grew in office. He did set his slaves free, all of them, not three or four, like Jefferson did. All of them, you see? In his will, to be sure, but that’s better than nothing.
Tell us something about your role in working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the case of Brown v. Board of Education .
I was at Cornell in the summer of ’53, and I got a letter from Thurgood Marshall asking me what I was going to do in the fall. I replied that I was going back to Howard. And he said, “You know what else you’re going to do? You’re going to be working for me.”
Thurgood was a character. Just a character. Thurgood wanted me to be the chief historian in helping write the brief on the very important questions with respect to the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. So, between September and December, I went to New York every week, staying from Thursday to Sunday, and worked at the office writing papers, reading briefs, providing the historical information that they needed, correcting their views about the Reconstruction period. There were others too. Alfred Kelly was there. He was a constitutional historian. Rayford Logan was in and out, as was C. Vann Woodward. There were sociologists and various types of lawyers. I’ve always felt it was a very important period in my life. I was surrounded by lawyers. I’m not claiming I was a principal figure in that operation, but they did show deference to me when I got to talk to them. And they were hard workers, absolutely and completely dedicated. Thurgood was the hardest worker of them all, despite the fact that his wife was dying of cancer at the time. He worked day and night, maybe sometimes all night. I never was there to see whether he worked all night, because I don’t work all night [laughs] .
“I think things have changed. You can’t say blacks vote and then say nothing has changed.”
When the decision came down in ’54, how did you feel?
I felt we’d won the world. Which was too bad. I think all of them felt they’d won more than they actually did win. No one realized when they were celebrating that whites would be plotting to frustrate their gain and make it ineffectual.
How would you characterize your role in the civil rights movement? In 1963, when much was happening, you were the professor reporting for the BBC, and two years later you participated in the Selma march.
I was never a leader, never took any real risks except marching through those narrow streets in Montgomery in 1965. But you know, one tends to exaggerate.
Did you know Martin Luther King, Jr.?