Although perhaps not as beloved as its predecessors, A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the 1973 TV special A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving nevertheless is a holiday staple. In fact, except for not airing for a few years in the 1980s, it has become a Thanksgiving rite for generations -- so much so that there was outcry in 2020 after Apple TV+ acquired the exclusive rights to classic Peanuts animated specials and new series. Fans want their Charlie Brown holiday traditions.
However, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving hasn't been without controversy: In recent years, viewers have pointed out how, Franklin, the only Black character, is treated during the big feast.
What Is A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving About?
Written by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving first aired 1973, and was quickly cemented as another holiday classic alongside 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and 1966's It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Opening with the classic gag of Lucy van Pelt convincing Charlie Brown to kick the football and then pulling it away, the special centers on Charlie Brown organizing a Thanksgiving dinner for his friends before he leaves with his family for his grandmother's. The plan originates with a call from Peppermint Patty, who's all alone for Thanksgiving, but swiftly snowballs into something larger, when she invites Marcie and Franklin to a meal that, technically, isn't happening. And so Charlie Brown and Linus spring into action, with the help of Snoopy and Woodstock, to cook a Thanksgiving feast. That's where the controversy comes into play.
Why Franklin's Portrayal at the Thanksgiving Dinner Created Controversy
During the dinner the kids throw for themselves, Franklin, the only Black character in the Peanuts gang, is seated by himself on the opposite side of the table, in a beach chair, seemingly "segregated" from the other kids. Whether it was overt or accidental to put Franklin by himself isn’t clear. For those who feel uncomfortable with how the scene is depicted, it can feel anything but accidental. But the decision may not have been racially motivated.
Schulz's widow, Jean, said her husband had to work to engage Franklin in his comics and stories because he didn't have as many overt character quirks as the other kids. So, writing a scene where his chair breaks in the holiday special, giving Franklin a moment in the spotlight and a little action on-screen, works from a visual perspective if the gag is shown with a clear view – opposite the other kids. This is why the placement of Franklin is an easy way to visually animate the gag for viewers.
Thus, the controversy around the Thanksgiving meal didn't come from the hands of Schulz. While he wrote the Thanksgiving holiday special, it was his frequent collaborator for his other animated specials, the late director Bill Melendez, who oversaw the cartoon’s creation. Melendez was the one who delegated scenes to the animators to create, leaving Schulz isolated from this production process. Which animator(s) actually drew the scene in question, and why, has been lost to the passage of time, so it’s unclear exactly why Melendez included the scene the way it is.
When viewing the episode through the prism of time and the advancement of civil rights, the scene plays very differently now than when it first aired. This Charlie Brown special came when the push for civil rights in America was still a monumental challenge to overcome, and many people across the country were not yet ready for a fully integrated America – or integrated cartoons. But changing that divisive mindset is one of the core reasons why Franklin ended up joining the Peanuts gang.
Franklin’s History in Peanuts, Explained
Jean Schulz says her husband added the character Franklin in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in spring 1968. A school teacher named Harriet Glickman wrote the cartoonist, asking him to create a Black character for his popular comic strip as a means of helping narrow the racial divide. By that summer, Franklin made his first appearance in the comic strip, but not without a fight. The publisher of the Peanuts comics initially objected to the idea of Franklin. In response, Schulz reportedly delivered a very simple ultimatum: “Either you run it the way I drew it, or I quit.”
Schulz died in 2000, leaving only Jean to speak for her late husband and his intentions. According to Jean, the idea that racism was a part of Schulz’s agenda for the Peanuts gang is totally wrong: “To suggest the show had any other messages than the importance of family, sharing and gratitude is to look for an issue where there is none.” It is also worth noting Schulz helped liberate Nazi concentration camps in World War II, witnessing first-hand the brutal horrors of unfettered hate and segregation.
Although the true intent behind why the production team animated Franklin by himself remains unknown, it is clear that the man who wrote the story was using his Peanuts gang to help bring everyone together in the tradition of the holidays because it’s the right thing to do.
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