Raleigh, North Carolina
Dr. John Hope Franklin, at 94, remains a formidable progressive historian, having lived through two world wars, five decades of segregation, the sixties civil rights movement and now Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Since there is no comparable or greater authority alive, I was eager to ask him to evaluate this long history. I ventured to North Carolina for meetings and dinner with Dr. Franklin in Raleigh, where he keeps office hours at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center. It was April 16, and Barack Obama was rolling through North Carolina that week, the state where the student sit-in movement began three years before Obama’s birth. I was especially wondering where Dr. Franklin placed Obama in African-American history.
Dr. Franklin is dark-skinned, tall and angular, with the strong handshake of a man deeply grounded. He is very present, but his presence also invokes the presence of an ancestor, the kind of father Barack Obama searches for in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. Dr. Franklin is living history himself as well as the author of such classics as From Slavery to Freedom: The History of the African-American People. This is a man who volunteered to fight in World War II, but was rejected for military service on grounds of race, a man who became a PhD while having to personally integrate segregated libraries, a defender of W.E.B. Dubois during McCarthyism, a key social researcher behind Brown v. Board of Education, the first black chairman of a major history department (Brooklyn College, 1956), and a man who lived the bitter decades even before the Rev. Jeremiah Wright came along. His wife, Aurelia, died in 1999 after fifty-nine years of marriage. Dr. Franklin walks with a cane these days, and the accompaniment of close friends, but is extremely alert, curious and possessed of a mirthful smile. During our dinner, admirers kept approaching our table to wish him well, introduce their families and share stories.
Dr. Franklin had received a call from Barack Obama the day before, he said, but the two had not connected yet. “The person who took the call is a Hillary supporter,” he softly chuckled.
The Clintons were progressive enough to shower many honors on Dr. Franklin, including a presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, the year that young Barack Obama published his Dreams. Dr. Franklin spent many hours in the White House during the Clinton years, and even today remains the ranking academic charged with molding how history will be embodied in the new African-American Smithsonian museum on the Mall.