In October 1959, before the Civil Rights movement would spread across the United States, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist, underwent medical treatment to help disguise himself as a black man. He then travelled through the segregated Deep South of America, exchanging the privileged life of a white man for the enduring disenfranchisement of the black man. As he moved across this deeply racially prejudiced landscape, Griffin encountered the racism, casual violence and discrimination that was the daily experience of millions of Americans.
From the unrelenting threat of violence to the comparatively minor indignities of being forbidden from using certain drinking fountains or buying food from particular shops, Griffin documented the racism experienced in response to his new identity and opened the eyes of white America to the blatant and unforgiveable abuses going on in their country.
“Black Like Me was Griffin’s effort to persuade America to open its eyes… Black Like Me still speaks to us from a distance of 50 years; it resonates because its true topic is not race but humanity… As long as one group persecutes, fears and detests another, Black Like Me will, sadly, remain essential reading.” Guardian
Black Like Me was first published in 1961, reminds readers of the enduring threat of racial aggression – indeed, after its publication, Griffin received numerous death threats and, several years later, he was almost beaten to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Amidst this horror, however, it also demonstrates the monumental difference that just one man can make. Griffin was a novelist, photographer and journalist, serving both in the French Resistance during World War Two and the US army. After the publication of Black Like Me, Griffin became deeply involved with the emerging Civil Rights movement, working closely with Martin Luther King among others.
“One of the most extraordinary books ever written about relations between the races.” ‘The Today Programme,’ BBC Radio 4
Also published in the Independent Voices series is Martin Luther King Jr.’s Stride Towards Freedom, a memoir of the Civil Rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. described Stride Toward Freedom as “the chronicle of 50.000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of non-violence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth”.
On December 1st 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Rallied by the young preacher and activist Martin Luther King Jr. the black community of Montgomery organised a historic boycott of the bus service, rising up together to protest racial segregation.
This was the first large-scale, non-violent resistance of its kind in America, and marked the beginning of a national Civil Rights movement. Stride Toward Freedom is the account of that pivotal turning point in American history told through Martin Luther King’s own experiences and stories, chronicling his community’s refusal to accept the injustices of racial discrimination.
At the time, Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 years old and the pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery. Within a year he was a national figure and a leader of the Civil Rights movement, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated on April 4th 1968.
Throughout this month of particular awareness of Black History, reading accounts by people as revolutionary and inspiring as Martin Luther King and John Howard Griffin offers us invaluable insight to the thankless and tortuous daily hardships endured by so many millions of black people across history.