Sunday, March 29, 2009

NY Times Editorial on J. H. Franklin

I thought this editorial by Brent Staples on the death last week of Dr. John Hope Franklin was worth sharing.

March 27, 2009
John Hope Franklin


Every death leaves a conversation unfinished. The one I regret not finishing with the historian John Hope Franklin, who died Wednesday at the age of 94, focused on what it was like to be a rising black intellectual in the Jim Crow South. In particular, I wanted to hear more about Dec. 7, 1941, the day he and his wife, Aurelia, drove from Charleston, S.C., to Raleigh, N.C. — covering the better part of two states — before they reached home and learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

Clearly, the car had no radio. But wouldn’t they have heard the news when they stopped to gas up and get something eat? No, he said; I had misunderstood the period. Black families motoring through the Jim Crow South packed box lunches to avoid the humiliation of being turned away from restaurants. They relieved themselves in roadside ditches because service-station restrooms were often closed to them. They worried incessantly about breakdowns and flat tires that could leave them stranded at the mercy of bigots who demeaned and wished them ill.

“You took your life into your hands every time you went out on the road,” he said. It was, of course, a relief to come upon a black-owned service station. But he said that you could drive from Charleston quite nearly to Baltimore before finding one.

We had that conversation in 2006, in connection with an article I wrote for this page on his powerful autobiography “Mirror to America.” I had known him for more than 30 years by that time. I had long been aware that he had reshaped the scholarship of the South and had given birth to African-American history with books such as “From Slavery to Freedom,” “The Militant South, 1800-1860” and his groundbreaking work on free Negroes in antebellum North Carolina.
I first met him as a student during the 1970s — a time of big hair and loud voices — when young radicals too often dismissed distinguished black elders as Uncle Toms. This was a mistake based on the fashion of the moment. The older I got, the more we talked. And the more we talked, the more I became attuned to the fierce militancy that burned in his voice and in his prose.

He continued to speak out against injustice and never let himself be flattered into the role of the black factotum who would conveniently declare the race problem solved. If anything, the militancy grew fiercer over time. It reached its zenith in “Mirror to America,” which recounts in vivid detail how the decision to segregate the armed forces poisoned American civic culture. He refused to serve during World War II for a country “that had no respect for me [and] little interest in my well-being.”

I had hoped to sit down with him one more time to reconstruct that trip back in 1941. I must now do that without him. BRENT STAPLES

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