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Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, March 17, 1960

March 17, 2010 |  2:13 pm

 March 17, 1960, Mirror Cover

Further Reaction to White 'Negro'

Paul Coates    A $1 bill and  a $5 bill found their respective ways through the U.S. mails this week, onto my desk.

    Both came to me as a result of the articles I printed concerning author John Howard Griffin's masquerade as a Negro in the Deep South.

    The $5 bill arrived anonymously with the request that I forward the money to a particularly impoverished Alabama family who befriended the incognito Griffin, offering to share their scant rations and bare shack with him.

    The $1 was mailed by a lady "to begin a campaign" -- she wrote -- "to buy that nigger-lover a one-way ticket to Russia."  If the campaign was a success, she pointed out, then she could start another one to ship me off, too.

    These were the extremes of local reaction to Griffin's amazing story.       

 March 17, 1960, Polio

       Yesterday I mentioned the foreign reaction -- the surprising interest which the news syndicates and magazines of Free Europe showed in his experience.  It was an unemotional, almost clinical interest.

    "The Negro's position in America," one of the editors explained to me by phone, "has a fascination for us because it's so incongruous with everything else about your country.  People here enjoy reading about it -- but they do with a curious, unemotional eye."

    But here at home the eye isn't so unemotional.

    Roughly 60% of the letter reaction I received was anti-Griffin, anti-Negro.  Some of it was framed in pretty rough language -- but that I've come to expect.

    For reasons I doubt I'll ever understand -- the answer, I'm sure, lies somewhere on a psychoanalyst's couch -- the individuals who pick out Negroes, or other minorities to hate, do so with a special kind of illogical viciousness.

    I've never found any argument, no matter how sensible, that would begin to penetrate the skin of a bigot.

    But not all reaction was from this strange breed of man.

    What surprised me most was that three or four of the letters praising Griffin and attesting to his observations and conclusions came from persons who were born and raised in the Deep South.

    "I hang my head in shame," one woman wrote.  "I was born, raised, married and had my children in Alabama.  The treatment which Mr. Griffin received is mild compared to what some of the Negroes endure. 

    "I'm ashamed of being a Southerner, but I'm more ashamed of belonging to  a race so superior that they can deny God's laws all week and go to church on Sunday."

    Another came up with the rather intriguing suggestion that the Southern senators who are making such a farce out of our Congress with their civil rights filibuster might make better use of their time by doing what Griffin did -- disguising themselves as Negroes and finding out firsthand how they would be treated  in their own land.

    There were letters from school kids, asking me why Southerners treated Negroes that way.

    There were letters from Negroes, too.

From a Fine Gladiator

    One of them was addressed to Griffin, care of me.

    "I just want to say thank you." he wrote.

    "Thanks for taking the chances you took to bring the facts to the public.  I know it took courage.

    "Whenever I hear of an injustice done to my people, I cry inside.

    "I know how vicious a coward can be.  A coward will kill a helpless man just to impress his friends.

    "I know, because I am a fighter."

    The letter was signed, Archie Moore.