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Historian says it's time for all of us to stand up
Seattle Times staff columnist
At 90, Dr. John Hope Franklin has seen a lot of history, been part of some of it and chronicled more of it than almost anyone else. He's a hard worker who even in retirement is still turning out books.
His latest book, "Mirror to America," came out just last month. Part autobiography and part history, it tells the story of his remarkable family and of the 20th-century civil-rights movement. The book is full of victories and momentous change for the better, but it is also a picture of the persistence of ills to be struggled against.
Franklin, in the end, is worried that we Americans have turned from serious contemplation of the issues facing us.
I met him last month in Nashville. He was sitting in a hotel lobby with another man one morning. He looked familiar, but I couldn't think who he was. As I walked by, I smiled and nodded and so did he, then a woman said, "Oh my," and rushed over, pulling a young girl by the arm.
"This is the famous historian, Dr. John Hope Franklin," she told the little girl.
He seemed way too young to be Dr. Franklin. I sat down and struck up a conversation. He was headed to Fisk for a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of his graduation from the university, and I was headed there to hear him speak to a group of journalists before the commemoration.
We rode over together and walked across the campus with him pointing out buildings he remembered. The man with him, he said, was Walter Brown, one of his early students and the retired dean of education at North Carolina State University. Now they're best friends and neighbors.
Franklin is thin and tall and regal in bearing. His résumé is laden with awards and book credits, but he is down to earth, still a young fellow from Oklahoma.
His ancestors came to Oklahoma from the South on the Trail of Tears along with their Chickasaw owners. His mother was a schoolteacher. His father, Buck Franklin, became a lawyer through a correspondence course, but since there was not much work for a black lawyer, he did many other kinds of work as well.
Buck Franklin's office and everything in it was destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa race riot, in which white folks took to the streets and destroyed the black section of town after black residents tried to prevent a lynching.
His books, of course, have been important in filling in gaps in American history, but he has contributed in other ways as well. He worked with Thurgood Marshall on Brown v. Board of Education, for instance.
But he's afraid the changes he's seen have not gone deep enough. He's said it's tragic Americans only noticed the racial disparities in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. People should have known, but most don't pay attention to that kind of thing.
He told the group of journalists he sees Americans standing by while problems mount. "If we don't stand up soon, we will be lost."
Someone asked about leadership. Since he has known so many presidents, how would he rate George Bush?
"President Bush is not even on the rating scale," he said. "He's not among the presidents who've made constructive contributions to this country."
But Franklin faulted citizens most for the nation's problems.
"Americans as a whole are saying, 'I pass.' Who is criticizing this country for the billions they have bilked out of us? We are much more interested in who won the Tennessee State game, or what happened to the Dodgers."
I appreciated his frankness and I share his concerns, but over the next two days the group of journalists I was with heard from numerous people who are trying to solve the problems they see.
Their shoes may not fit the imprints he has left, but they are walking the same path. It's just that John Hope Franklin is a long-distance runner who can't help but urge the rest of us to pick up the pace.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company