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“The Essence of Scholarship is Truth”: John Hope Franklin, Activist and Scholar

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The following is a guest post by Lauren Sinclair, Program Assistant at The John W. Kluge Center. It is the seventh in a series on past recipients of the Library of Congress Kluge Prize.

In 2006 the Library of Congress awarded the Kluge Prize to historians John Hope Franklin and Yu Ying-shih. It was among the last major international honors bestowed up on Franklin before his death in 2009. A pioneering scholar of African American history, Franklin is widely credited for establishing African American history as a legitimate field of study and affirming Black agency in American history. Franklin also devoted a significant portion of his life to activism, teaching about and participating in some of the most important Civil Rights causes in American history.

During his career Franklin received more than 200 awards and honorary degrees. In 1995 President Bill Clinton awarded Franklin the Presidential Medal of Freedom–the nation’s highest civilian honor–for “blazing a trail through the academy,” being a “moral compass for America” and “always pointing us in the direction of truth.”[1] Franklin was lauded by President Clinton for “never confusing his role as an advocate with his role as a scholar.”[2] To Franklin, scholarship was the perfect medium for his effective role as a Civil Rights activist. In his words, “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.”[3] Franklin believed that “knowing one’s history leads one to act in a more enlightened fashion” emphasizing that he “[could] not imagine how knowing one’s history would not urge one to be an activist.”[4]

On the road to these lifetime achievements, Franklin faced formidable obstacles in his educational and professional path. Barred from the University of Oklahoma, he attended Fisk University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1935. The U.S. War Department refused to hire him as a historian.[5] Franklin persisted, attaining high levels of success in academia and becoming the first Black president of the Southern Historical Association in 1971. Franklin’s tenacity helped him to surmount significant barriers. At the same time, his struggle for equality was tempered by a calm and genteel demeanor, marked by devotion to a universal truth and equality. For Franklin, the personal and professional were deeply interwoven; he maintained “[y]ou can’t have a high standard of scholarship without having a high standard of integrity, because the essence of scholarship is truth.”[6]

Historian John Hope Franklin, co-recipient of the 2006 Kluge Prize.

Franklin received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1941 and authored 17 books including the groundbreaking “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans” (Knopf, 1947), which sold more than three million copies. A prolific and influential writer, Franklin conducted much of the research for the work at the Library of Congress. He first conducted research here in 1939 and regarded it as “his library” throughout his scholarly life, calling it his “literary home” and “the cause of his literary growth and production.”[7]

Franklin also contributed directly to the Civil Rights movement. In 1953 he helped Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund successfully reargue Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine and required the desegregation of schools in America. A decade later, Franklin joined the march on Selma, Alabama, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Throughout his career, Franklin emphasized the role of historians in successful advocacy toward the overturning of segregation laws and biases.

Franklin’s work was devoted to the liberation of his and future generations of oppressed peoples. His work challenged a broader morality, maintaining that “the historian is the conscience of the nation.”[8] In the spirit of the Kluge Prize, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington attested that Franklin affected not only the conscience, but also the consciousness of the nation, adding that Franklin was (and remains) a “pathfinder and model for other scholars.”[9]

This post is the seventh in a series on past recipients of the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. The Kluge Prize will be bestowed again on September 29, 2015 to philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor. The ceremony will be webcast. #KlugePrize.


Previous posts in this series:


[1] Clinton, W.J. (29 September 1995). Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Retrieved August 25, 2015 from:

[2] Clinton, W.J. (29 September 1995). Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Retrieved August 25, 2015 from:

[3] Franklin, J.H. (1991). Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988. Baton Rouge: LSU Press.

[4] Briggs, J. (1994). Hope of Our Past: Scholar John Hope Franklin Says Knowledge of History is Crucial to Black America’s Future. Emerge Magazine 5 (6), 21.

[5] Gates, H.R. and Wolf, J. John Hope Franklin: A Life of Firsts and Flowers. Retrieved August 25, 2015 from:

[6] Franklin, J.H. Quote from Winston-Salem Journal, Aug. 6, 1989. Retrieved August 25, 2015 from:

[7] Franklin, J. (30 September 2006) [Video Interview]. John Hope Franklin: National Book Festival Reflections. Retrieved August 25, 2015 from:

[8] Franklin, J.H. (1991). Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988. LSU Press: Baton Rouge.

[9] Billington, J. (5 December 2006). Kluge Prize Ceremony. Retrieved August 25, 2015 from:


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