Black Like Me: Dec 2 - Dec 15, 1959

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Summary of Deep South Journey, December 2–15, 1959

 

December 2, Trappist Monastery, Conyers

Griffin calls the Sepia magazine office and they ask him to stay in Atlanta to do some more stories. While he waits for a photographer to arrive, Griffin goes to stay in a monastery about thirty miles outside of the city. The monastery is inhabited by Trappists, a Roman Catholic religious order of monks, and Griffin finds it a very peaceful and restorative environment. Here, he notes, all is peace and silence; there is no hatred or prejudice. Griffin talks to one monk about racism. The monk and Griffin agree that although some bigots use religious arguments to back up their points, there is nothing in the Bible that justifies racism.

 

Griffin next has a visit from a young college instructor from the South whose liberal views on race relations have estranged him from his family.   

 

That evening, Griffin picks up a book the monk has lent him, Scholasticism and Politics by French philosopher Jacques Maritain. According to Maritain, racists who invoke the name of God and twist the words of the Bible to support their bigoted ideology are not true Christians. Griffin feels that this Frenchman’s words accurately describe the hypocrisy of the South, as well as that of religious racists everywhere.

 

December 4, Atlanta

The young professor drives Griffin back to Atlanta, where he checks into a luxury hotel. The hotel staff is suspicious and discourteous to him, perhaps suspecting he is of mixed race. Although Griffin is not disguised as black, his skin is still darker than average due to the medication. Griffin is disgusted and decides not to stay.

 

Around noon, the photographer, Don Rutledge, arrives to meet Griffin. The two will do a story together on Atlanta’s black business and civic leaders.

 

December 7

Griffin spends three days working on the Atlanta story, interviewing such black leaders as attorney A. T. Walden, businessman T. M. Alexander, the Reverend Samuel Williams, and Dr. Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College. He observes that great strides have been made against racism in Atlanta. This has happened as a result of three factors. First, the black community—which consists of many talented and educated leaders—is united with a common purpose. Second, Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield is sympathetic to the black cause. Third, the city has a newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, headed by journalist Ralph McGill, that is unafraid to stand up for right and justice.

 

Griffin notes that most newspapers in the South are filled with racist propaganda from the White Citizens’ Councils and Klans. However, there are a handful of courageous publishers—among them McGill and Griffin’s friend P. D. East in Mississippi—who make a stand for racial justice. These news publishers don’t play it safe and print what people want to read; they risk their fortunes and reputations for the sake of the truth.

 

The African-American section of Atlanta consists of black-owned banks, businesses, and industries as well as six black colleges, including Morehouse (an all-male college), Spelman (an all-female college), and Atlanta University. Griffin describes how the black community works closely together, pooling their resources in order to create economic leverage. The intellectual climate is also of high quality. He is particularly impressed to see Dr. Moreland, a brilliant young female professor at Spelman, challenge her class to think and talk about racism. When it comes to housing, Griffin notes the many fine black residential neighborhoods in Atlanta.   

 

Voting rights are a fourth important factor in Atlanta’s progress, Griffin notes. Black business, professional, and civic leaders are all politically active, and in 1949, black Democrats and Republicans united to form the Atlanta Negro Voters League, helping blacks gain a voice in their government. In 1955, a black candidate was elected to the city school board. Griffin again credits Atlanta’s mayor for his progressive leadership, and lists the names of all the black leaders, last but not least Martin Luther King, Jr., who are contributing to the American dream.

 

His project at an end, Griffin returns to New Orleans, where the photographer, Rutledge, will take some photographs of the area and of Griffin as a black man.

 

December 9, New Orleans

It proves challenging to get photographs of Griffin disguised as a black man in public. Black and white onlookers alike are suspicious and want to know who this seemingly famous black man is. To avoid this problem, Griffin and his photographer pretend not to know one another. The photographer appears to be simply another tourist taking photos, and Griffin a passerby. They return to the shoeshine stand and take a few photographs with Sterling Williams.

 

Another problem arises in that the white photographer cannot go to any restroom, water fountain, or café with Griffin. Because of this, both men often go without coffee and water during their time together.

 

December 14

The photos taken and the project complete, Griffin resumes his white identity again. He feels strangely sad.

 

December 15, Mansfield, Texas

Griffin returns home. Soon it will be time to reveal the results of his project to the world, and he dreads the hatred that will be directed at him. But for now, Griffin basks in a joyful reunion with his family. 

 

Analysis of Deep South Journey, December 2–15, 1959

In these entries, Griffin again brings up the theme of Christianity as a tool against racism. Griffin was a Catholic and studied in a Benedictine monastery. In recounting his conversation with the monk in the Trappist monastery, Griffin shares his ideas about Christianity. Religion, he believes, should be the antithesis of hatred. Those who manipulate and pervert Christian teachings to fit a racist agenda—as, for example, saying that God made people black as a curse—are not true Christians. Griffin mentions a booklet, For Men of Good Will, by New Orleans priest Robert Guste, which he says debunks many cliches about black people.

 

Having shown readers a rather hopeless picture of the racist South, Griffin now describes the strides made in the city of Atlanta. He identifies four main reasons for Atlanta’s progressiveness on civil rights: unity among the black leaders; a white mayor sympathetic to black rights (Atlanta would not have its first black mayor until 1973); a progressive newspaper that is outspoken against injustices; and finally, a Negro Voters’ League, which has helped protect black voting rights.       

  

The picture of Atlanta as a city of hope completes Griffin’s picture of the South. He has shown readers what life is like in New Orleans, Louisiana; in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; in Mobile and other small towns in Alabama as well as the state capital of Montgomery; and now Atlanta, Georgia. The conditions are slightly different everywhere Griffin goes. In New Orleans, whites are more polite and Catholic influence makes the city less hateful toward blacks, but the racism is still alive and well; in the small towns of Mississippi and Alabama, the racism is more overt and takes the form of harassment and mob violence. The picture is somewhat more optimistic in Montgomery because of the tradition of dignified civil disobedience there, while Atlanta shows signs of progress because of its strong black community. Racism exists in all the places he visits, however, and it is clearly a widespread and deeply ingrained problem.

 

Ironically, Griffin feels sad to reclaim his identity as a white man. Although he is resuming his life as a relatively privileged white man, he is also giving up the solidarity he felt with other black people. Now he will return to being an outsider. His observation shows how important the attitude of one’s community is to the formation of one’s identity. Accepted by others as a black man, Griffin felt himself one of them. Now because of a change in skin color, he is made to feel a completely different person again, but he is the same person inside that he always was.

 

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