It was a warm November afternoon in 1959. John Griffin had hitchhiked without success for ten miles along the highway from Biloxi, Mississippi to Mobile, Alabama. He needed a restroom in the worst way. A custard stand with an old unpainted outhouse behind came into view.
Griffin rushed to purchase a small dish of ice cream. When he’d finished he asked the white attendant, “Where’s the nearest rest room I could use?”
The attendant looked at Griffin’s dark skin which African-Americans call pure brown. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Let’s see. You can go up there to the bridge and then cut down a road to a little settlement —there’s some stores and gas stations there.”
“How far is it?” Griffin asked.
“Not far–thirteen, maybe fourteen blocks.”
“Isn’t there any place closer?” Griffin said looking at the privy.
“I can’t think of any,” said the white man.
In those days, such personal affronts were common for blacks in Mississippi. Griffin was familiar with Jim Crow. Not the unwritten code of racial degradation practiced by many southern whites against blacks.
A middle aged writer from Texas on assignment for the black magazine Sepia, Griffin wrote about the condition of race relations in the South. He would later write a book on the subject, Black Like Me, that spoke to white America like none before.
Over the next two months Griffin encountered the unwritten code repeatedly as he traveled through Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana by bus or hitchhiking. There was the Greyhound bus driver in Slidell, Louisiana who refused to allow blacks to get off with the other passengers at a rest stop. And the white foreman in Alabama who denied Griffin a job for which he was the best qualified, with the statement: “You’re missing the point. We’re going to do our damnedest to drive every one of you out of the state.”
John Griffin, who died in 1980, would be surprised at how race relations have improved in the South— more than in many northern states. However, when you consider that the parents of today’s middle aged African Americans lived their lives under the duress of Griffin’s 1959 racial code, does it surprise you that their children are not always ready to accept white promises of justice at face value?
Griffin’s book was a bestseller and a movie. For the first time white audiences experienced the insidious animosity of many whites toward blacks in the South.
Black audiences were relieved that their world of tacit subjugation was at last revealed to mainstream Americans. In “Black Like Me” it was there to be read with their own white eyes.
John Griffin saw it the same way. Why you say? Because he was a white journalist who temporarily colored his skin so he could experience a black man’s life in the segregated South.
You see, he could write with authority from either side of the color line–he had lived on both.
Malcolm D. Gibson
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