A few days from now on August 9, it’ll be exactly 71 years ago that an explosive series about Southern racism, written by Ray Sprigle- a white investigative reporter from Pennsylvania who made himself appear Black- was published in 1948. Sprigle, who worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wanted to see for himself how many among the South’s ten million excruciatingly poor and forcibly uneducated Black residents endured de jure racism in the form of Jim Crow laws and de facto racism in the form of day-to-day inhumanity by white men, white women, and even white children. However, he wasn’t a “bleeding heart liberal.” Quite the contrary, he was a conservative Republican who simply wanted to see, in his words, “that justice was done to a group that is grossly oppressed.” He was also a Pulitzer Prize winner who received that prestigious award in 1938 for having exposed Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black as a former member of the KKK in Alabama.
Before I get into the details of Sprigle’s story, I must admit that I initially was kinda leery about him when I came across information that he had concocted a type of quasi-blackface disguise to report about racism. I had to think long and hard about whether he was appreciating (i.e., battling) Black oppression or appropriating (i.e., profiting from) it. As a result of extensive research, I ultimately concluded that he not only appreciated Black folk’s struggles but also used his admitted white privilege to expose and condemn the outrageous bigotry that made such struggle necessary. Prior to taking on his new Black appearance, he met with several Black men and women, including leaders of Black organizations like Walter White, national executive secretary of the NAACP. And those Black people not only gave Sprigle their blessings but also assisted him in creating a “Black look” consisting of appropriate skin tone and appropriate clothing. After initially and unsuccessfully attempting to darken his skin using different types of chemicals and other products such as walnut juice, he decided to leave the cloudy East Coast and relocate temporarily in Florida where, after completely shaving his head and mustache, this 61-year-old man relentlessly immersed himself in powerful sunlight on beaches for nearly a month, creating a deep tan that led people to describe him as “a light-skinned Negro.”
In addition to appearing Black, Sprigle, while traveling through Georgia, made it his business to constantly hang out with the man he called his “trusted guide,” John Wesley Dobbs, a voting rights activist who was the son of parents who had been enslaved. Dobbs had become quite influential amongst Blacks in Atlanta and throughout Georgia as a community and political leader. Accordingly, he provided the perfect cover for Sprigle. As an interesting aside, I must note that Dobbs’ first grandson was Maynard Jackson Jr., who in 1970 became the city’s first elected Black mayor. Dobbs traveled with Sprigle, who had begun using the pseudonym James R. Crawford, for 30 days and close to 4,000 miles throughout the Deep South while telling people they were “Masonic Brothers.” Together, they worked, lived, ate, and faced demeaning hardships along with poor Black sharecroppers, farm hands, and families of lynching victims. Sprigle’s riveting report, entitled “I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days,” appeared as a 21-part series in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Black-owned Pittsburgh Courier, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and over a dozen other newspapers but nowhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It exposed to the average white readers the hellish horrors of brutalizing, dehumanizing, impoverishing, and suffocating racism for poor Blacks that those white readers didn’t know about, didn’t want to know about, or simply lied to themselves about. He made it clear that despite the 13th Amendment in 1865 ending slavery, the 14th Amendment in 1868 providing equal protection, and the 15th Amendment in 1870 granting voting rights to Black men, Black folks’ “rights... ran only as far as the nearest white man said they did.” During a televised debate, he condemned the blatant and relentless mistreatment of poor Southern Blacks, describing it as “the whole vicious and evil fabric of discrimination, oppression, cruelty, exploitation, denial of simple justice, denial of rights to full citizenship and the right to an education, which the white South imposes upon the Negro.” His series was powerfully compelling not only because of its substance but also because it was the first of its kind. In fact, it was published eleven years before publication of the seminal book, “Black Like Me,” by white author John Howard Griffin. Sprigle’s entire 21-chapter series can be read at http://old.post-gazette.com/sprigle/default.asp.
In it, you’ll find many compelling points made by him but none more compelling than his statement that “I quit being white and free and an American citizen when I climbed aboard that Jim Crow coach.... From then on, until I came up out of the South four weeks later, I was Black and in bondage- not quite slavery but not quite freedom, either.” Hmm.... “Black and in bondage- not quite slavery but not quite freedom, either.” That’s the song real Black people were forced to sing everyday before 1948, everyday during 1948, and everyday after 1948. In fact, we’re still singing it altogether in harmony right now in 2019.