Since his death March 25 at the age of 94, America has eulogized John Hope Franklin as the great historian, public intellectual, and teacher that he was. His influence ranged widely, extending far beyond his extraordinary professor’s curriculum vitae into areas that still have gone largely unnoticed. One of those areas is foreign relations.
The international connection isn’t obvious. He wasn’t a diplomat. To the contrary, he turned down offers of prestigious federal appointments. He wasn’t a specialist on the history of U.S. foreign relations. As a thinker, he addressed domestic U.S., not international, issues. For some, his impressive bibliography isn’t even national; it’s regional. It’s Southern, to be precise.
FOREIGN EXCHANGE SCHOLAR
As a young professor, Franklin doubted the ability of the U.S. Government to avoid manipulation of grantees of its flagship Fulbright exchange program. When to his surprise U.S. embassies left him to his own devices to say what he wanted wherever he went, he changed tack and commended the State Department for standing back. He absorbed the wisdom of the binational principle: that what appeared to be purely U.S.-Government programs really were jointly conducted with foreign institutions and with decisive control often in the hands of the non-Americans.
For the rest of his long life, Franklin acted as one of the strongest advocates of the Fulbright program, including service on its board and on the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy – the closest he ever came to accepting a federal job. So unwavering was his commitment to Fulbright that he missed the 1963 March on Washington because he felt that he couldn’t justifiably break his commitment to England’s Cambridge University. (He made the point of rectifying his absence at the “I Have a Dream” speech by leading a cohort of distinguished historians in the 1965 Selma-Montgomery march.)
No one should have expected less from Franklin. As a student of the South, he had waded through the miasma of the myth of the Lost Cause that prevailed among white historians of the South (not to mention American society at large) until well into the middle of the twentieth century. He certainly must have derived satisfaction on returning to post-segregation Duke University as a distinguished senior professor in the 1980s. Four decades before, he had endured petty Jim Crow insults while conducting research in that institution’s Perkins Library as a young teacher at the all-black public university a few miles away, the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University). Now, he returned a prince among scholars.
CHALLENGING THE PREVAILING NATIONAL NARRATIVE
Histories of the U.S., until the 1960s, varied greatly but generally opened with Columbus before jumping to Jamestown and Plymouth Rock after a passing nod to the adventurous Spanish conquistadores who made it to what would become the U.S. Among the better and most used of these texts was the two-volume The Growth of the American Republic, penned by the illustrious trio of Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager, and (later) William E. Leuchtenberg, which stayed in print from 1930 until the 1980s. Rear Admiral (U.S. Navy Reserve) and Boston Brahmin Morison specialized as a naval historian, so it should come as no surprise that the book’s vision of the birth of the United States happened with “The First Discovery,” when Europeans accidentally sailed into the New World on the way to somewhere else.
Admittedly, there is ample room to debate Africa’s place in the initial voyages and colonization that ensued. Nevertheless, it is curious to note what the seafaring enthusiast Morison and his colleagues left out. He surely knew that Portugal’s dramatic African venture had something to do with Columbus’s obsession with sailing west. He certainly knew that even the first voyages of discovery docked at the Canary and Madeira islands, offshore African outposts for Spain and Portugal where Africans often joined the crews. He must have understood that Africa was the indispensable third point of the triangle that sustained his beloved New England for so long. In a more personal sense, he possibly never made the connection that without the African slave trade, his own Puritan forebears and their communities might have had no choice but to pack up and move west or return to the British Isles. One must conclude that that in the Morison story line, Africa didn’t matter.
For Franklin, the question wasn’t whether Africa mattered, or at least mattered enough to feature in the national epic. He knew that the story was incomplete because Africa had gone missing. The task at hand was to place Africa in the narrative where it belonged, and then tell it in a way that people – not just other academics -- listened.
MOBILIZER OF PUBLIC OPINION
Franklin wasn’t the only historian of the South to foresee the region’s potential for guiding a wiser America through the shoals of the Cold War. In 1953, C. Vann Woodward declared in “The Irony of Southern History” that the South offered an exception to the idea of American exceptionalism in the world. In the aftermath of World War II, many Americans took pride on never having lost a war (a questionable assumption to begin with, even then) and for having fought those wars for good and just reasons. Woodward argued that Southerners, however, could point to a very different experience of defeat, occupation, and humiliation, generating an “awareness of the ironic incongruities between moral purpose and pragmatic results in which the laudable aims of idealists can be perverted to sordid purposes.” In this analysis, the South resembled less the rest of America than the rest of the world.
Woodward’s South, however, was the white South. It is ironic that the courtly, iconic Southern white liberal Woodward, who did so much to re-think his region’s racial past, would leave the black Southerner out of his prophetic equation. Still, he was on to something basic about the global nature of the Southern experience. As it turned out, Franklin made the more accurate prophecy. It was to be black, not white, Southerners – now spread throughout the nation – who harbored the wisdom gained from oppression, defeat, occupation, and humiliation, persevering and overcoming with a profound spirit that could inspire the world.
THE DIPLOMATIC HISTORIANS
Emboldened, a new generation was seeing things differently. In addition to Hunt, scholars such as Brenda Gayle Plummer, Thomas Borstelmann, and Mary Dudziak documented the influence of black Americans on foreign affairs. African voices such as Ali Mazrui and George Attiyey spoke out ways that were new and refreshing to many Americans. Two Australians, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, have recently demonstrated the global consequences of the white-Australia policy. Even in the tradition-bound Foreign Service, more and more Africanists – often alumni of the Peace Corps and or multiplying African studies programs -- were making their presence felt up to the level of Assistant Secretary for African Affairs and the equivalent positions at the U.S. Agency for International Development and other federal agencies.
The end of the Cold War followed by the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992 raised hopes that Africa at long last would win more policy attention. Clinton offered ample uplifting rhetoric, but little concrete action. Action would happen unexpectedly on the watch of Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, who oversaw the quadrupling of overall foreign assistance, two huge programs that concentrated on the continent, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the establishment of the controversial Africa Command. Once again, however, these were prompted by an outside factor, 9/11. The post-9/11 strategic paradigm elevated weakly governed states to the level of a national security threat, meaning that Africa suddenly mattered at the highest level of policymaking.
There was also another and more foreseeable factor, however: a reborn and expanded grassroots constituency for Africa. The extraordinary campaign to “save” Darfur demonstrates that a citizen-driven Africa lobby has arrived in full force, a left-right coalition that encompasses Christians and Jewish groups, students, and African American institutions and NGOs. Students often don’t thank teachers until it is too late, but it might be fitting for some of these activists to leave a metaphorical apple for Professor Franklin in the form that he himself might have preferred: a donation to the Aurelia Franklin Scholarship Fund at Fisk University. Perhaps it could provide for the education of students from Darfur.
In the final analysis, his success as a serious scholar who won a wide audience placed him in a rarified group of historians, such as George Bancroft, who molded the minds of a generation. As Bancroft crafted the worldview of Theodore Roosevelt’s generation, Franklin crafted Barack Obama’s. In the hagiography of historians of the U.S., Franklin was Lincoln to Bancroft’s Washington, leading the long struggle for a long-overdue correction of a shameful distortion of the national narrative. It should behoove those of us who carry the title of “diplomat” to acknowledge his place in influencing the foreign relations of the U.S. or better yet, read him.This article represents the views of the author, not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.