John Howard Griffin (June 16, 1920 – September 9, 1980) was an American journalist and author, much of whose writing was about racial equality. He is best known for darkening his skin and journeying through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to experience segregation in the Deep South in 1959. He wrote about this experience in his 1961 book Black Like Me.
Griffin was born in Dallas, Texas to John Walter Griffin and Lena May Young Griffin. His mother was a classical pianist, and Griffin acquired his love of music from her. Awarded a musical scholarship, he studied French and literature at the University of Poitiers and medicine at the École de Médecine. At 19, he worked as a medic in the French Resistance at the Atlantic seaport of Saint-Nazaire, where he helped smuggle Austrian Jews to safety and freedom.
Griffin then served 39 months in the United States Army Air Corps, stationed in the South Pacific, during which he was decorated for bravery. He spent 1943–44 as the only Caucasian on Nuni, one of the Solomon Islands, where he was assigned to study the local culture; he even married an islander. His novel Nuni (1956) is a semi-autobiographical work that draws heavily on his year “marooned” on the island and shows an interest in ethnography he followed more fully in Black Like Me (1961).
Left blind by a 1946 accident in the United States Army Air Corps, he began to write. He came home to Texas, converted to Catholicism in 1952, becoming a lay Carmelite, and taught piano. In 1953, he married (with dispensation from the Vatican on account of his first marriage) one of his students, Elizabeth Ann Holland, with whom he had four children. In 1957, he regained his eyesight and became an accomplished photographic artist. Griffin’s experiences with blindness were published in 1962 as Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision.
Griffin was a lifelong Democrat.
Black Like Me and later
In the fall of 1959, Griffin determined to investigate the plight of African-Americans in the South firsthand. He consulted a New Orleans dermatologist, who prescribed a course of drugs, sunlamp treatments, and skin creams. Griffin also shaved his head so as not to reveal his straight hair. He spent weeks travelling as a black man in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi (with side trips to South Carolina and Georgia), getting around mainly by bus and by hitchhiking.
His resulting memoir, Black Like Me, became a best seller in 1961. The book described in detail the problems an African-American encountered in the Deep South meeting such simple needs as finding food, shelter, and toilet facilities. Griffin also described the hatred he often felt from white Southerners he encountered in his daily life — shop clerks, ticket sellers, bus drivers, and others. He was particularly shocked by the curiosity white men displayed about his sexual life. His account was tempered with some anecdotes about white Southerners who were friendly and helpful.
Black Like Me made Griffin a national celebrity for a time. In a 1975 essay included in later editions of the book, Griffin described the hostility and threats to himself and his family which emerged in his hometown of Mansfield, Texas, where he was hanged in effigy. He eventually moved his family to Mexico for about nine months before returning to Fort Worth.
Following publication of the book, which was subsequently made into a 1964 film starring James Whitmore, Griffin lectured and wrote on race relations and social justice. In 1964, he received the Pacem in Terris Award from the Davenport (Iowa) Catholic Interracial Council for his contributions to racial understanding.
In his later years, Griffin focused on researching his friend Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk and spiritual writer he first met in 1962. Griffin was chosen by Merton’s estate to write the authorized biography of Merton, but his health prevented him from completing this project. Griffin’s nearly finished portion of the biography – on Merton’s later years – was posthumously published in 1983 as Follow the Ecstasy: Thomas Merton, the Hermitage Years, 1965–1968.
Death and rumored effects of Oxsoralen
John Howard Griffin died in Fort Worth in 1980 at age 60 from complications due to diabetes.
It has been erroneously claimed that the large doses of methoxsalen (Oxsoralen) Griffin used in 1959 to darken his skin eventually led to his death from skin cancer. Griffin did not have skin cancer; the only negative symptoms he suffered due to the drug were temporary and minor. The worst, arguably, were fatigue and nausea.
Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me, by Robert Bonazzi, who published some of Griffin’s writings at his Latitudes Press, was published in 1997. Bonazzi is said to be at work on a full-scale biography of Griffin with the working title Reluctant Activist: The Authorized Biography of John Howard Griffin.
An hour-long biographical documentary about Griffin, Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin, was released in 2011. The film has been aired on PBS stations and is included as an extra on the 2013 DVD release of the film Black Like Me.