Credit: shel hershorn, time & life pictures/gettty images

Fifty years ago this spring, the white Texas writer John Howard Griffin became a national celebrity. Sepia, a prominent black magazine, published his “Journey Into Shame,” a series of articles about his daring travels through the Deep South. At midnight on November 7, 1959, after using pills, a sunlamp, and dye to darken his skin, Griffin had stepped out into the streets of New Orleans as a Negro to see what he would see.

The response in Griffin’s hometown, Mansfield, Texas, was that someone hanged him in effigy.

Just before beginning his adventure Griffin studied himself in the mirror and was overwhelmed. He felt exterminated. The person he’d been all his life was all but lost, no longer before him and scarcely within. “I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship,” he would write in Black Like Me, his best-selling 1961 book, which reworked the Sepia articles and described the reaction to them. “I had gone too far. I knew now that there is no such thing as a disguised white man, when the black won’t rub off. . . . I was a newly created Negro who must go out that door and live in a world unfamiliar to me.”

Griffin didn’t change his physiognomy (though he cut off his lank hair because it had no curl). He didn’t change his name or biography. He didn’t affect an accent. When asked, he identified himself as a writer from the north studying “conditions,” and all but the northern part was true. But his skin defined him—to the whites he met, to the blacks, and to himself. In Hattiesburg he began a letter home and couldn’t get past “Darling.” In Mississippi, no black man would dare address a white woman as “Darling,” and Griffin couldn’t either.

Griffin lived as a black man for about three weeks, once finding respite in the home of a white editor and another time in a monastery. For another couple of weeks, after learning better how to manipulate his skin color, he sampled southern cities as alternately a black man and a white one.

Rereading Black Like Me recently, I was surprised by how quick the trip was. Then again, when Christ died for our sins he was dead all of three days, and for 2,000 years that has been good enough for the Christian church. No one said Griffin’s immersion was too short to matter, though some black reviewers had reservations. For instance, Louis Lomax praised Black Like Me in the Saturday Review but commented, “As a Negro I was somewhat amused as Griffin eased from the white world into the black and encountered hostilities that have been my daily bread since childhood.” And the Negro Digest reviewer asserted that there was no way to “put a white man in a Negro’s place, for deep down, the white man understands that he is free.”

When Griffin looked himself in the mirror that first time, he felt anything but free. His revulsion told him, he’d later write, that “my own prejudices, at the emotional level, were hopelessly ingrained in me.” And now that his skin was dark he was at the mercy of the south, a land where mercy to the Negro was in short supply. Jim Crow did not just suppress, it menaced and sometimes killed, almost always with impunity. No, Griffin would not internalize Jim Crow the way a Negro must, but he would get a healthy taste of it. Commanded off park benches, out of waiting rooms, down the road a piece to the colored toilet, and of course to the backs of buses, he learned about life when it’s structured as an unending series of humiliations. Hitchhiking through Dixie at night, he discovered that white drivers didn’t care what they said to him because he was no one who mattered, and so they revealed their superstitions about black virility and prodded him to admit he lusted after white women. Studying the desolate swamps outside his window, Griffin wondered whether it would be more dangerous to allow that he did or keep insisting he didn’t.

Setting out, Griffin had told himself he was engaged in sociology. “The Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth,” Griffin would write in the opening paragraphs of Black Like Me. “How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth?” But as he wrote most of the sociology fell away, and what survived was a terse, bleak narrative. Black Like Me is weakest where traces of the sociological boilerplate remain; they seem to have originated somewhere other than his journey. For instance, he writes of the New Orleans ghetto, “Here sensuality was escape, proof of manhood for people who could prove it no other way.” When he passed through this ghetto he’d been a black man about half a day.

Jim Crow was America’s great acquiescence, the era that the Greatest Generation had to get well past before anyone could nominate them as such with a straight face. The north was nearly as implicated in it as the south. As Black Like Me was being published, the Saturday Review happened to carry a point/counterpoint by the Reverend William Sloane Coffin of Yale and the conservative writer William Buckley entitled “Desegregation: Will It Work?” Buckley wrote that it wouldn’t. He argued that there is “no present solution” to the race problem in the south and that only damage would be done if Washington tried to impose one. “If it is doubtful what enduring benefits the Southern Negro would receive from the intervention of government on the scale needed to, say, integrate the schools in South Carolina,” he wrote, seven years after Brown v. Board of Education, “it is less doubtful what the consequences would be to the ideal of local government and the sense of community, ideals which I am not ready to abandon, even to kill Jim Crow.”

Buckley counseled patience. “The Negro community must advance, and is advancing,” he wrote, and his hope was simply “that when the Negroes have finally realized their long dream of attaining to the status of the white man, the white man will still be free.”

It was a reasonable and popular position, unacceptable only to those who managed to see Jim Crow not as some sort of inconvenience southern blacks were obliged to put up with a while longer but rather as a constitutional travesty, a reign of terror, and a national sin. Adlai E. Stevenson was the darling of liberals, the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, yet his feelings about race weren’t much different from Buckley’s. “I spent the evening with AES at young Adlai’s,” the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in his journal in February 1956, a time when he was on Stevenson’s campaign staff. “We talked mostly about the civil rights and Middle Eastern problems. On civil rights, he kept saying that the basic fact was the difficulty of the adjustment; that it was raising false hopes to suggest that people’s minds and hearts could be changed by coercion; that the Negro leaders were defeating their own purposes when they put on pressure; that the only Negro hope was to reduce tension and let the moderate-minded southerners assume local leadership and work out the problems of adjustment in a gradualist way.”

Those who thought along the lines of Buckley and Stevenson dominated every walk of American life, from government to the church to the press to the hallowed halls of commerce and academia. They would have recoiled from the pejorative description of “white supremacist,” yet if one race had to preside over the others, and it was their own, what were they supposed to do? Writing in 1962 about a 1949 book called Killers of the Dream by the white southern writer Lillian Smith, Griffin said that Smith “showed that those who embraced the strangely shallow dream of white supremacy were killers of the greater American dream of a society based on freedom, equality and justice.”

Fortunately millions of Americans shared that sentiment. But it was another thing to act on it, and to act as Griffin did was singular. Griffin became a Negro for our sins.

His father a Baptist wholesale grocer and his mother an Episcopalian pianist, Griffin rebelled against the junior high school education he was getting in Fort Worth in the 1930s and applied to a boys’ school in France where he could study Latin and Greek. But Europe exposed him to much more than that. It began the slow, incremental process of dismantling the assumptions he’d grown up with—assumptions, he’d realize with horror upon looking into that mirror in New Orleans, he wasn’t free of yet. France offered the curious sight of blacks living on the same footing as whites, but it would later be swept by racism at its most extreme: the anti-Semitism of Hitler. Griffin became involved in helping smuggle Jewish children out of France; when he was betrayed he fled back to America.

Griffin enlisted in the Army Air Forces and was sent to an island in the Solomons to study the local culture and measure the loyalty of the natives. These were people he thought of as primitives until he got to know them well enough to appreciate their sophisticated survival skills: even the five-year-olds knew how to negotiate jungles that made Griffin feel completely helpless.

He spent three years in all in the Pacific. An exploding shell from a Japanese bomber caught him running toward a trench and knocked him unconscious. Weeks went by before his mind was clear again, but he could barely see. The war ended, and Griffin returned to Europe to study music—but in 1947 he went completely blind.

Sightless, he learned to raise livestock, published two novels, converted to Catholicism, met and married his wife, and fathered two children. He endured a period of partial paralysis from spinal malaria that had remained dormant in him since the war. And when he got involved in local desegregation issues in Texas, he reflected on the irrelevance of skin pigments he could no longer see.

In 1957 the blood clots behind Griffin’s eyes began to dissolve, and to his astonishment his sight returned. For ten years he had lived as the other—though as an other who was pitied rather than despised. The experience made it easier to entertain the notion that came into his head of crossing over again. Two years after he got his sight back, Griffin told the owner of Sepia, a friend, that he wanted to travel black through the south. The owner told him he was crazy but that it was a hell of an idea.

A portrait of Griffin from which I’m drawing heavily here is the 1997 book Man in the Mirror, written by Robert Bonazzi, a friend of Griffin’s who eventually married his widow. Bonazzi tells us that Griffin thought himself a coward. When he decided to turn himself black, his fears ran away with him. “I will not be loved as myself while I am gone,” he fretted. “How can I actually be held in love when even my wife will think of me as a Negro stranger?” Is it any wonder he would not know how to continue a letter that opened, “Darling”?

In midlife Griffin converted to Catholicism. Deeply spiritual and intellectual, he was drawn to men like Jacques Maritain, the French philosopher, and Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer. When he contemplated becoming black, he judged himself harshly and concluded that love—be it of God, or justice, or humanity—was too weak a force in him to sustain him through such a trial. Instead, he yoked himself to a vow of obedience. My vow, he later told the astonished Maritain, was to you. Maritain held that existence lies in the act; Griffin swore to be worthy of his friend by acting “without ever thinking of the consequences.”

Griffin was scared because he saw so clearly what the consequences could be. The south was no place for pious simpletons. In 1963 a Baltimore postman named William Moore would be shot and killed in Alabama while walking from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, wearing a placard that said “Equal rights for all & Mississippi or bust.” A couple days later Griffin spoke to some students in Iowa. “I’m afraid Mr. Moore asked for it,” he said. “This isn’t the sort of thing to do without being enormously well prepared to do because we tend to underestimate the danger. Simply walking through Alabama with a placard like this by himself on the roadway late at night is pure suicide.”

In his review of Black Like Me, Louis Lomax wrote, “And since there are white people who doubt everything a Negro says, perhaps now they will hear us when we say the plight of the American Negro is a disgrace.” Lomax didn’t get his wish. In 1977, three years before Griffin died at the age of 60 from complications of diabetes, a new edition of Black Like Me was published. The author wrote a wistful new epilogue, and in it he said his personal experience was that whites still didn’t hear.

He explained that his book turned him into white America’s go-to guy for interracial communications. In the 1960s black voices became a lot louder and more strident, a development that didn’t surprise Griffin and didn’t dismay him. But no matter the tone of the black voices, the white power structure didn’t engage them.

For instance, Griffin wrote, there were troubles in Rochester, New York, and the call went out, and he, with his month of black street cred, found himself in a room of community leaders, “concerned and sincere men,” all of them white. One said, “Well, Mr. Griffin, what is the first thing we should do now?”

Griffin replied that there were many capable black men in the city, something he knew because he’d called some of them to find out what was going on in Rochester. He advised the white community leaders to invite them to the next meeting.