Sunday, April 05, 2009

John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)

Using one's skills to influence public policy seemed to be a satisfactory middle ground between an ivory tower posture of isolation and disengagement and a posture of passionate advocacy that too often deserted the canons of scholarship.
- John Hope Franklin

The historian John Hope Franklin (2 January 1915-25 March 2009) was a towering figure both physically and intellectually.

He was named after the great early 20th century African American educator and political activist John Hope.

John Hope Franklin, the grandson of a slave, went on to achieve numerous distinctions, any one of which would have represented a significant accomplishment for a single lifetime: he revolutionised the study of American history; he became a best-selling author of serious and scholarly books (his 1947 classic From Slavery to Freedom has sold over four million copies and counting, and is in its 8th edition); he made major contributions to the civil rights movement in the United States, such as conducting scholarly research for Thurgood Marshall and the rest of the legal team that successfully argued the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954); he had a long and distinguished academic career in which he earned the respect, admiration and affection of his peers and students; he participated in many major studies and panels, including chairing President Bill Clinton's 1997 One America: The President's Initiative on Race; he won many accolades, including over 130 (!) honorary degrees and multiple awards and prizes; and, most importantly perhaps, he personally embodied the hope of his name for better tomorrows not only for Americans of every complexion, but for everyone around the world. The latter is a remarkable achievement given that historians are by definition concerned with the past.

His life is a testament to the power of moral and intellectual courage. It also exemplifies the power of ideas and intellectual endeavour and discourse as a means for changing the world for the better. Despite the incidence of some pain and one or two controversies, the overwhelming themes of John Hope Franklin's life are about triumph over adversity, the power of hard work and persistence, and, yes, hope. Perhaps nothing symbolises this more powerfully than the state of the United States when John Hope Franklin was born and when he died 94 years later. In 1915, he was born into an America with numerous Jim Crow laws and frequent lynchings of African American men. In 2009, he died having witnessed a man of African descent ascend to the Presidency of the United States earlier that year.

Hope indeed.

See also:
  • A poignant personal tribute by one of his colleagues, Stan Katz of Princeton.
  • The beautifully written obituary in this week's Economist, although I take issue with the characterisation of John Hope Franklin as merely a "historian of America's blacks". He was a historian of America, but I shan't quibble.
  • Duke University's online memorial site.

1 comment:

ambersun said...

Hi again

What a wonderful, encouraging story.

At the moment I'm feeling a little hopeless and fatalistic.

This shows me that I can change things - even in a small way.