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Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, March 11, 1960

March 11, 2010 |  2:06 pm

Marh 11, 1960, Mirror Cover

Deep South's Constant Sullen Hate, Contempt, Sadism Bared

Paul Coates(Second of two articles)

    John Howard Griffin became a Negro by choice.

    He did it with special pills, ultraviolet ray treatments and vegetable dyes.

    And he did it with the assurance that when the humility and scorn became too  much of a burden, he could resume his life as a first class white American.

    Yesterday, I told you how Griffin, an author and a native Southerner, began his fantastic six-week masquerade as a Negro and started his travels through the South.

He Wanted to Know

    I gave you his reason:

    To sort the fact from fiction about the oppression of the Southern Negro.


March 11, 1960, Finch Trial

        I related some of his initial experiences in New Orleans, where he worked as a shoe shine boy, learned to pillage garbage cans for catfish heads and green bananas, and became acquainted with the "hate stare" and economic subjugation which are part of a way of life for the Southern Negro.

    After a week in this comparatively cosmopolitan city, he moved on -- against the warnings of his Negro friends -- to Mississippi.

Word of Venom

image    In New Orleans, he was afforded at least a few courtesies, a little personal identity, by the whites.  In Mississippi, they told him, he'd have no name at all.  No soul.  He'd be one word:  Nigger.

    That's all any black man was in Mississippi. 

    Arriving in Hattiesburg, he found out how right their prophecies were.  Off the bus less than five minutes, he was a target of jeers and rotten fruit tossed by  a carload of teen-age first class citizens.

    He'd done nothing to incite them.  He was just walking down the street, clothed in black skin.

The Rules

    It was this incident that won him his introduction to the state's Negro "underground."  A local Negro, spotting him as newcomer, took him aside.

    He outlined some of the [words missing here—lrh]  white woman.  Turn your head.  Look down at the ground.

    If white boys holler at you, just keep walking.  Don't let them stop you and start asking questions.

Black Underground

    The punishment, if you make yourself obvious in any way, could be disfigurement, jail, or death -- depending on the whimseys of those whom your presence offended.

    With no overture for assistance by Griffin, the stranger gave him an address of a man who specialized in helping new Negroes slip into the city.  From that man, he was directed to another and another, until he found himself in a Negro drugstore on Mobile Street.

    The druggist addressed him by name and shuttled him a few blocks farther, where lodging in a room over a Negro bar was awaiting him.

Mack the Dead

    As he sat on the frightening loneliness of his room, he could hear the lost voices in the bar below improvising a ballad:

    "Poor Mack Parker . . . overcome with passion . . . his body in the creek."

    From Hattiesburg, traveling by bus and hitchhiking, Griffin roamed back to Louisiana, again into southern Mississippi and through Alabama and Georgia.

    He began filling notebooks.

    He wrote:  "The Southern white sees the Negro not as good or bad, intelligent or stupid, but only as black."

Not Even a Saint

    He wrote:  "I have looked diligently for all aspects of 'inferiority' among the Negro and I have not found them."

    He wrote:  "A basic tenet of psychology holds that no man, not even a saint, can live without a sense of personal value.  The white has masterfully defrauded the Negro of this sense.  It is the least obvious and most heinous of all race crimes, for it kills the spirit and will to live.  In the South it has led to a widespread suicide tendency that allows the Negro to say, 'I don't care if I live or die.' "

White Trash

    As he hitchhiked, occasionally a white would pick him up. And, more often than not, engage him in meaningless, vulgar conversations about sex.

    "Your wife ever been with a white man?" one large, pleasant-faced truck driver demanded.

    He seemed to delight in talking to Griffin about the "craving" all white men in that region had for colored girls.

    Another, obviously a respected businessman, told him:  "I hire a lot of them.  And I have them all before they get on my payroll."

Give or Starve

    Griffin questioned the man on what he felt was an exaggeration.

    "I said 'All!'" the man repeated.  "They've got to work if they want to eat."

    From the experiences of his masquerade, Griffin concluded:  "Mongrelization" -- that whispered word -- is exclusively the white man's contribution to the Southern Way of Life.

    The hardest blow to Griffin's sensitivities came in the backwoods of Alabama, when  a Negro factory worker gave him a ride, sensed his loneliness and insisted that he rest the night in his shack by the swamps.

March 11, 1960, Blue Cross

Swamp Tragedy

    Sharing the two-room shack were the factory worker's wife and six children.  They were decent, intelligent, hard-working, clean, church-going, highly moral people.  The children were magnificently loved and magnificently behaved.

    Swamp alligators outside their front door were well-fed, but the family was near starving.  (Griffin pointed out to me that alligator tails would have made  a delicious supplement to the family's diet, but the state -- in its open-face effort to starve out or subjugate the Negro -- has made killing alligators and offense carrying a $100 fine.)

Little Girl, Big Deal

    The supper which the family shared with Griffin consisted entirely of a pot of boiled yellow beans.  Afterward, Griffin removed a  Milky Way bar from his jacket to offer as his contribution.  It was sliced -- a piece for everybody, and the children were ecstatic over the treat.

    That's when Griffin had to excuse himself and go outside to cry.  He had mentioned to one of the little girls that he had a daughter just her age and that today was her birthday.

    "Will she have a piece of Milky Way?"  the girl asked.  "Will she have a party like we did?"

You Should Know

    The drama of Griffin's life as a Southern Negro lasted from the moment he walked out of his rented room in New Orleans at midnight to the day, six weeks later, when he stopped taking his pigment-darkening pills and pulled out of the South.

    In a series of articles beginning in the April issue of Sepia, Negro news-picture magazine which will be on the stands March 15, he personally recounts the loneliness, the pity, the utter despair, flecked with hope.

    His observations and conclusions are many.

    But he says he will never forget the Southern Negro's passive dignity, the incongruous forgiving pity which the Negro secretly lavishes on the bigoted Southern white who tortures him economically, socially and personally.