"A Black Student `Destroyed' by Racism -- Or Was He?"

 by Jeff Jacoby, from The Boston Globe, Sept. 28, 1998

     When James Byrd was dragged to his death in Jasper,
Texas, most Americans reacted with horror.  John Hope
Franklin, the Duke University historian who chaired
President Clinton's advisory board on race relations,
reacted with a shrug.

     "I don't want to sound callous," Franklin told the
Associated Press, "but that's nothing new."  Racist
incidents occur all the time, he said, citing "the
burning of black churches in previous years."  The Jasper
incident "was just more barbaric" than most.

     And then, the AP reported, Franklin told a
particularly sad story:

     "A black high school student . . . worked for weeks
on a paper for class and submitted it to his white
teacher.  `It was a first-class paper.  You know what she
said?  "Who wrote this paper for you?"  He was destroyed
completely by a casual comment by an insensitive
teacher,' Franklin said.  `He was dragged through the
streets and killed, too.'"

     This was not the first time Franklin related the
tale of the black schoolboy whose life was "destroyed" by
the supposed racism of his white teacher.  He had told it
10 months earlier, during a forum in Little Rock, Ark.,
that was broadcast to 25 US cities.  The San Francisco
Examiner noted that Franklin "told of a young black
student who worked long and hard on an assignment, only
to have his teacher ask, `Where'd you get the paper?' 
The boy, Franklin said, `was destroyed,' quit school, and
now lives on the streets."

     Query:  Is Franklin's story true?

     Certainly it is dramatic.  It powerfully illustrates
his contention that white racism, even when not explicit,
continues to shatter black lives.  But did it actually

     After reading the article in The Examiner, a
professor of African history at California State
University was moved to contact Franklin and ask for more
information.  Charles Geshekter, a specialist on East
Africa and a three-time Fulbright scholar who studied at
Howard University in the 1960s, wanted to know where and
when the event occurred and what was done to discipline
the teacher who had caused such harm.

     "I was appalled to learn about this incident,"
Geshekter wrote.  "As a university instructor and a
member of the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center,
I am always distressed to hear about such incidents. 
Thank you very much for providing me with more

     But Franklin didn't provide Geshekter with more
particulars.  He ignored his letter.  When nearly five
months had elapsed with no reply, the California
professor tried again.  "I realize," he wrote in
February, "that you are extremely busy . . . but I wonder
if you would please take the time to answer my

     Five more months passed.  Finally, late in July,
came an answer.  "I can provide no more details about the
incident," Franklin wrote.  "I do not feel free to reveal
the name of the school or the young student who was
tragically mistreated.  I do not wish to expose either
him or his family to further unauthorized disclosure."

     It is hard to know what Franklin meant by "further
unauthorized disclosure" -- after all, he was the person
disclosing the episode.  It is even harder to understand
his refusal to corroborate a story that he is in the
habit of telling in public.

     "As a fellow historian deeply concerned about race
matters and historical accuracy," Geshekter wrote back in
a final letter, "I was distressed that you would
voluntarily `cite' such an inflammatory `incident' to a
member of the press . . . yet be unwilling to provide
further specifics."  Franklin never replied.

     But he is not silent about his notion that America
still reeks of racism.

     "We know we can't repair in a year," he said at Fisk
University in July, "the damage that's been done
persistently, consistently, and energetically for some
350 years."  Listening to him, one would never know that
America has made tremendous racial progress in recent
decades.  He denounces "the idea that we should aspire to
a `colorblind' society" -- Martin Luther King's
aspiration -- as an "impediment."

     His version of a national dialogue on race is that
"the white side has been in control of virtually
everything, so they're the ones who need educating on
what justice and equality mean."  The final report of the
president's advisory board quotes Franklin as saying,
"This country cut its eye teeth on racism" and it
behooves us to understand why we are "so proficient and
so expert" at being racists.

     It seems unlikely that the holder of an endowed
professorship at Duke and the author of a leading text on
black history would knowingly spread a story for which he
can supply no evidence.  But then, it would have seemed
equally unlikely for him to point to "the burning of
black churches" as proof of endemic American racism.  As
Franklin surely knows, the recent "epidemic" of black
church burnings was a media fiction.  (More than one-
third of the arsonists arrested were black, nearly half
the churches burned were white, several fires were
accidental, and the annual number of church fires is not
rising, but falling.)

     So what about Franklin's story of the black youth
driven into homelessness by his teacher's insensitivity? 
*Is* it true?  Hoping to succeed where Geshekter failed,
I called Franklin several times over the past month.  I
left messages at Duke and at his home office.  I
explained why I was calling and described the information
I was seeking.  Twice I was told he would call back "next
Monday."  So far, I've heard nothing.

                         * * *

     Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe. 
His e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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