John Hope Franklin's autobiography, published in his 91st year, is a compelling read. As the main title suggests, however, its ambition is to be more than a simple record of his life; rather the book is an extended commentary on American history through the 20th century. He recounts what it was like to be a black American in that century, living with racial prejudice and telling a story of a continuing struggle to create a society based on equality and common humanity.
His analysis, which is not overly optimistic, warns against contemporary complacency. The true measure of a successful society, he explains in his concluding paragraph, "is not in how many millionaires it can produce, but in how many law-abiding, hardworking, highly respected and self-respecting loyal citizens it can produce". And, he implies, America (and we can add other societies, too) has some way to go.
The genius of the book, and why it should be widely read, is that throughout his life Franklin has combined scholarship with concerns for justice and social improvement. This obligation is not regarded as separate from his vocation as a historian - public service done out of hours, as it were; but rather, his scholarship and his academic career are the means of serving just causes mightily. He believes that history necessarily informs the present and points to the future: not in the crude sense of learning lessons from the past, but that historical insight allows fuller understanding of society and therefore provides a better basis for defining and tackling its problems.
Humans create much of their own mess, but they also have the capacity to clean it up if they see the picture as a whole. What distinguishes Franklin as a historian is the way in which, whether writing textbooks, monographs, biographies or lecturing to general audiences, he has always painted a big picture.
This came across very clearly when, as a second-year student, I attended his lectures in Cambridge in 1962-63. The history of 19th-century America, he taught us, was not comprehensible if you did not see that this expansive, buoyant, progressive society was also one riddled with cruelty and exploitation; that slavery was part of American economic dynamism; that the American South was among the most civilised and cultured societies of any historical era, but it was, at the same time, primitive and barbaric in its social arrangements and its economic structure; that the northern states may have claimed moral superiority for having ended slavery, but their histories were inextricably bound up with their neighbours in the South and they rose to dominance on the backs of their Southern confr res; that after the terrible battles of the 1860s, with their horrendous carnage, and the outlawing of slavery, American society moved in all sorts of subtle ways to entrench separation and inequality; that despite legislation and rulings in courts of law, a hard line of difference, based on the colour of one's skin, still divided American society.
Black Americans might technically be free, but to what purpose, if there were ways of preventing them from voting, or of checking their access to education, or creating barriers to their employment in the professions, or stopping them eating in certain restaurants and checking into certain hotels? And why could they not sit on any seat in a bus or train? And even when such citizens were literate or laid down their lives for their country in war, they were badgered, goaded and humiliated in innumerable ways - inferior beings in the Great Society.
This gross inequity, far from being solved by the abolition of slavery, survived and prospered; and despite reforms in the 20th century, and the emergence of some highly successful black Americans by the end of the millennium, problems of race are so essentially part of American society that no good comes from denying or justifying them: they have to be addressed openly.
In his own life, Franklin experienced all of this: as a boy being brushed aside by a blind white woman he was helping to cross the street once she knew he was black; arriving in New York to be head of the history department at Brooklyn College and not being shown houses appropriate to his position, and then, having found a suitable property, being denied a mortgage because he was black; in his eighties, at a reception to celebrate the award of the Congressional Medal of Honour, being handed a coat-check by another guest who assumed that he must be one of the hired hands. So he has cause for anger on his own account, let alone for millions of others who have been held back because matters of race have not been acknowledged or addressed.
The reflection in the mirror Franklin holds up is disturbing. Most Americans do not like to think of themselves or of their society as being riddled with hypocrisy and deceit, and some of Franklin's critics condemn him for being biased and subversive. But Franklin's great strengths in this fierce testing have been that his scholarship is so firmly grounded: it does not rest on polemic or theory, but on archives and records and methodologies that are exacting and unforgiving. He is also blessed with a formidable intelligence and a fine literary style, and his whole career shows remarkable qualities of leadership, combining persuasion with a commanding courtesy and grace. In childhood, his parents instilled in him an understanding of self-worth and the dignity of the individual. He had learnt to read and write before he was five; he worked extremely hard in school and at college, making the most of every opportunity that came his way.
History taught him that the black American was as much part of American society as any other of the many groups that composed it, and in the quest for social and economic justice he refused to become an outsider. He set out to work from within, but to insist on being recognised for what he was worth, to take up the challenge by simply being a first-class American.
This had its tough side. If, in the Second World War, the American military would not employ him by making use of his literacy and his intelligence, then he would not serve to peel potatoes and wash crockery. If a conference were held in a hotel that would not allow blacks to stay or eat in its dining room, then he would not attend unless some way was found to avoid the slight. If the government sought to use him as a token black or to send him on missions that were ill conceived, he would not play its game, or he would make his displeasure known.
Of course, the reflection in the mirror is not all dark, and Franklin, whose life, scholarship and teaching have been a success and an inspiration, can look back on his adult years with pride and satisfaction at what he has achieved. He has played a significant part in making American society fairer.
Academics everywhere can follow suit. He urges us not to pass on all the problems to future generations, and he persuasively reminds us that there is much still to do.
Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust.
Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin
Author - John Hope Franklin
Publisher - Farrar, Straus Girou
Pages - 401
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 0 374 29944 7