Why Mary Worth Refused to Introduce a Black Cast Member in the '60s

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The creator of the Mary Worth comic strip said they couldn't have a black character or else the strip would be canceled



A few years back, I did a Comic Book Legends Revealed about how Charles Schulz was inspired to introduce an African-American cast member into Peanuts. I'll recap the gist of it from that column (but please, go read that column to see the full letters involved. It's amazing stuff).

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On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. His tragic death inspired a Los Angeles schoolteacher named Harriet Glickman to write Charles Schulz, creator of the ultra-popular Peanuts comic strip, a letter, asking him to add a black character to the strip.

Perhaps surprisingly enough, Schulz not only wrote back, but he was very candid in his reasons for not having a black character in the strip. He worried it would be seen by black readers as tokenism.

Glickman, undeterred, used Schulz's response to offer a way that she could allay his fears. She collected a series of letters from African-American parents and they uniformly told Schulz that they would very much like him to add a black character to the strip.

Finally, Schulz dropped Glickman a note in early July, telling her to keep an eye out on the strips in the last week of the month, as "I have drawn an episode which I think will please you."

Here, then, are the three strips that introduced Franklin to the cast of Peanuts, from July 31-August 2, 1968...

Awesome, right?

However, what's interesting is that Schulz was not the only comic strip creator that Glickman wrote to. The other (well, at least the other one who responded) was Allen Saunders.

Saunders was the "creator" of the comic strip, Mary Worth (he really took an established comic strip, Apple Mary, and revamped it, but whatever, creator is close enough to describe him - that whole "Is Mary Worth a distinct comic strip or a sequel?" mess was covered in an old Comic Book Legends Revealed) and he wrote it from 1938-1979.

While Dale Conner launched the strip with Saunders, Ken Ernst took over only a few years into the strip and then drew it for over 40 years (six years more than Saunders, who was replaced by his son, John Saunders, who continued to write the strip until he passed away in 2004). They even had a Mary Worth comic book!

The concept of the strip was that Mary Worth was an older woman who gave love advice (and other advice) to younger people (initially to her extended family members, but then other people).

Glickman, naturally, thought it was a good idea for Worth to perhaps give advice to some black characters, as well.

A few years back, Glickman recalled what Saunders' response was...

So I decided to contact a couple of cartoonists, mostly or mainly the two important ones were a man named Allen Saunders and there was this strip he had called “Mary Worth” which you probably don’t remember, but it was around for a long time. I wrote to him and then I wrote to [Charles] Schulz. Saunders wrote back and said that he and his partner had considered something like this, they had thought about it, had wanted to do it but they were afraid that the syndicate would drop them if they did.

Oooph. Isn't that a shame?

After Saunders retired in 1979, his son had Mary take over managing a condominium complex, thus giving her a whole condo of diverse people to give advice to.

It's a real shame that Saunders felt that he couldn't have a black character in his comic strip in 1968. Thankfully, Charles Schulz was in a better position to get that change made.

Thanks so much to Harriet Glickman for this amazing part of comic history!

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