The great historian John Hope Franklin passed away this morning at the age of 94. The first African-American department chair at a white institution and the first African-American president of the American Historical Association, Franklin, the author of the seminal From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, was an integral part of the team of scholars who assisted Thurgood Marshall to win Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that outlawed the “separate but equal” doctrine in the nation’s public schools. Here we repost a powerful speech by Franklin we published originally at TheNation.com in 2006. It came on the occasion of his receipt of the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.
It is a signal honor to receive the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Franklin D. Roosevelt was my hero when I was in college, and I shall always remember my unsuccessful effort to chase him down during my senior year in the attempt to enlist his aid. As president of the student body, I sought the aid of President Roosevelt as the students protested the lynching of a young African American lad who had been seized from a house near the campus, taken to an adjoining county, castrated, and lynched for an alleged crime for which he had already been exonerated in a court of law. I was unable to reach President Roosevelt at his Warm Springs retreat. More accurately, the president of my college did not fulfill his promise to put me in touch with President Roosevelt.
The following year, 1935, I acquired a new hero in the person of Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. in whose seminar I was enrolled. At the very first meeting of the class, Professor S., as we were to call him affectionately, invited his seminar to his home. There I met his family, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who, by this year, 2006, has been my valued friend for more than seventy years. My relationship with the family placed me in a good position to observe and admire Arthur’s meteoric rise in the academy and subsequently in the world of public service. One can only say that he has been as distinguished and diligent as a public servant as he has been as an original and outstanding scholar in the academic world.
I wish to talk, albeit briefly, about what appears to be happening in the world and, especially, what seems to be happening in our country as we face one of the most difficult periods in our history. Those in a position to speak for the country and to outline its current mission insist that we citizens are undertaking to share with the world the blessings of a free and prosperous society and to spread democracy throughout the world. Under the most favorable circumstances, this would be a remarkable mission; and it is not too much to argue that these are not the most ideal times for such an undertaking. Before we enter upon such an ambitious mission it is well to remember that we ourselves are still in the process of becoming democratic, and it has taken us more than two hundred years to arrive at this stage. A democracy is a government where power is vested in the people, all of the people, and one in which the power is directly exercised by the people all of whom enjoy social and political equality.