Franklin Armstrong, the first African-American member of the Peanuts gang, is turning 47 today – but if it wasn’t for a persistent former high school teacher, Charlie Brown’s best friend might’ve never joined the crew.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Harriet Glickman, a retired Los Angeles teacher, was moved to action. “Like so many others, I felt helpless and like I had to do something,” she tells PEOPLE.
So she decided to write a letter to some of the most popular cartoonists of the time – one of them being Charles Shulz, the creator of Peanuts – to “talk to them about what it would be like for a black child to see themselves in a comic strip.”
Glickman admits she never expected a response, joking that the letter she sent out, which now sits in the Charles Shulz museum in California, was “quite long.”
To her surprise, she received two replies. One cartoonist rejected the idea, saying he was afraid his strip would be dropped from publication if he drew an African-American character. The other response came from Charles Shulz, who said he liked the idea, but worried African-Americans might feel the character was patronizing.
Determined to prove to Shulz that African-American families would welcome the inclusion, Glickman asked if she could run his “dilemma” by some of the very people he was afraid of offending.
Shulz wrote back that he’d welcome their opinions, but again stressed his concern that he “would receive the same sort of criticism that would make it appear as if I were doing this in a condescending manner.”
Flooded with letters from fans urging the cartoonists to integrate his strip, Schulz eventually changed his mind. On July 1, the cartoonist wrote back to Glickman, “You’ll be pleased to see the character in the strip in the week of July 29.”
“That was pretty exciting,” she says.
In the July 31 funny papers, Franklin Armstrong was born. Glickman remembers the comic “had a huge effect. When people saw it there were a lot of positive reactions.”
Newspapers, magazines and even pastors praised Schulz’s show of racial solidarity in the coming weeks – but the reaction was far from universally popular.
Glickman remembers that during the period of public school integration, some Southern publications asked Schulz not to show African-American and white characters in the same classroom.
The former high school teacher says that even United Features Syndicate asked Schulz if he was sure about the idea, to which she says he responded, “either you print it as I draw it, or I quit.”
Glickman says Shulz “was so well known and so loved, that he had the courage to do” what others wouldn’t.
Much to her regret, Glickman never met the cartoonist, who died in 2000. But after his death, she did visit his studio, which she describes as “an almost spiritual experience. To see where he drew the strip, and read my letter, it was a very personal reaction that I had.”
Franklin, who Glickman says became almost like a son to her over the years, became an integral part of the Peanuts crew, and will be featured in FOX’s The Peanuts Movie, opening in 3D Nov. 6.