“My challenge,” Franklin said, “was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly.”
In his autobiography, Franklin has described a series of formative incidents in which he confronted racism while seeking to volunteer his services at the beginning of the Second World War. He responded to the Navy’s search for qualified clerical workers, but after he presented his extensive qualifications, the Navy recruiter told him that he was the wrong color for the position. He was similarly unsuccessful in finding a position with a War Department historical project. When he went to have a blood test, as required for the draft, the doctor initially refused to allow him into his office. Afterward, Franklin took steps to avoid the draft, on the basis that the country did not respect him or have an interest in his well-being, because of his color.
In the early 1950s, Franklin served on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team led by Thurgood Marshall, and helped develop the sociological case for Brown v. Board of Education. This case, challenging de jure segregated education in the South, was taken to the United States Supreme Court. It ruled in 1954 that the legal segregation of black and white children in public schools was unconstitutional, leading to integration of schools.
Franklin’s teaching career began at Fisk University. During WWII, he taught at St. Augustine’s College from 1939 to 1943 and the North Carolina College for Negroes, currently North Carolina Central University from 1943 to 1947.
From 1947 to 1956, he taught at Howard University. In 1956, Franklin was selected to chair the history department at Brooklyn College, the first person of color to head a major history department. Franklin served there until 1964, when he was recruited by the University of Chicago. He spent 1962 as a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge, holding the Professorship of American History and Institutions.
David Levering Lewis, who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for history, said that while he was deciding to become a historian, he learned that Franklin, his mentor, had been named departmental chairman at Brooklyn College.
“Now that certainly is a distinction. It had never happened before that a person of color had chaired a major history department. That meant a lot to me. If I had doubt about (the) viability of a career in history, that example certainly helped put to rest such concerns.”
In researching his prize-winning biography of W. E. B. Du Bois, Lewis said he became aware of Franklin’s
“courage during that period in the 1950s when Du Bois became an un-person, when many progressives were tarred and feathered with the brush of subversion. John Hope Franklin was a rock; he was loyal to his friends. In the case of W. E. B. Du Bois, Franklin spoke out in his defense, not (about) Du Bois’s communism, but of the right of an intellectual to express ideas that were not popular. I find that admirable. It was a high risk to take and we may be heading again into a period when the free concourse of ideas in the academy will have a price put upon it. In the final years of an active teaching career, I will have John Hope Franklin’s example of high scholarship, great courage and civic activism.”
From 1964 through 1968, Franklin was a professor of history at the University of Chicago, and chair of the department from 1967 to 1970. He was named to the endowed position of John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor, which he held from 1969 to 1982. He was appointed to the Fulbright Board of Foreign Scholarships, 1962–69, and was its chair from 1966 to 1969.
In 1976, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Franklin for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Franklin’s three-part lecture became the basis for his book Racial Equality in America.
Franklin was appointed to the U.S. Delegation to the UNESCO General Conference, Belgrade (1980).