Saturday, September 8, 2012

John Howard Griffin (1920-1980)

"Future historians will be mystified that generations of us could stand in the midst of this sickness and never see it." (John Howard Griffin)

Today is the 32nd anniversary of the death of John Howard Griffin, a remarkable man who dedicated most of his life to help bring about racial equality in the U.S. He published a book, Black Like Me, published in 1961. 

In the fall of 1959, Griffin decided to investigate first-hand how life was for African-Americans in the South. He consulted a dermatologist in New Orleans, who prescribed a course of drugs, sunlamp treatments, and skin creams to darken the color of his skin. Griffin shaved his head to get rid of 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, mainly traveling bus and hitch-hiking. In his book Griffin describes in detail what African Americans were encountering in the Deep South at that time, just to have access to such simple things as food, shelter, and toilet facilities. He recounted the hatred which he often felt from white Southerners on a day-to-day basis: from store clerks, ticket sellers, bus drivers, etc. He tells how amazed he was by the curiosity which white men displayed about his sexual life, and he recounted anecdotes about some white Southerners' friendliness and helpfulness.
In the fall of 1967, when I was serving as chaplain and instructor at Sacred Heart College [now Newman University], Wichita, KS, Mr. Griffin was slated as one of the speakers at a human relations conference sponsored by the college. This was at a time when racial tensions all over the U.S. were very high, no less so in Wichita. At the conference's sessions I experienced, perhaps for the first time in such a penetrating way, some of the deep frustration and anguish of many young black men because of the societal barriers they encountered. The conference organizers had invited a group of young men who were involved in street gangs within the city, as well as several notable leaders in Wichita's African-American community. The real differences and divisions even within that group were obvious and palpable. Though displaying some obvious, and understandable, "attitude" in their presentations, the young gang members surely conveyed an important, almost desperate message: a message which, in my opinion, is as much or more valid and desperate today for many young people of whatever race or color.

I was quite taken aback at the response of one African-American, considered a prominent leader and advocate of racial equality in the Wichita community. When the question was raised about what might happen if and when the black community's frustration and anger might spill over into forceful demonstrations, the leader blatantly admitted that he had a personal refuge all ready in the country to which he would head if trouble began. It bothered me that, given his reputation for the cause, he would be so unwilling to stand with his people.

When Mr. Griffin arrived on campus for his talk, I was asked to transport him to and from the auditorium. He was still having trouble at that time with his eyesight and with difficulty in walking for any extended time. It was such an honor just to meet him, as well as to have a brief chance, at least, to speak with him about his experiences and his friendship with my idol, Thomas Merton. Because it was so long ago, I don't recall all the details of our discussion, but I do remember that it was one of the few times in my life when I felt as if I were in the presence of a truly great person. 

John Howard Griffin was a Texan, born in Dallas. His mother, Lena, was a classical pianist, and Griffin acquired a love of music from her. He was awarded a musical scholarship, and studied French and literature at the University of Poitiers, as well as medicine at the École de Médecine. At age 19, he worked as a medic in the French Resistance at the Atlantic seaport of Saint-Nazaire, and helped smuggle Austrian Jews to safety and freedom. 

Griffin served a little over three years in the U.S. Army Air Corps, stationed in the South Pacific. He spent 1943-44 as the only Caucasian on Nuni, one of the Solomon Islands, assigned to study the local culture, where he also married an island woman. He was later decorated for bravery. 

Left blind by an accident in 1946 in the Air Force, he came home to Texas, where he converted to Catholicism in 1952, became a lay Carmelite, and taught piano. In 1953, having obtained a dissolution of his first marriage from the Vatican, he married Elizabeth Ann Holland, with whom he raised four children. In 1957 Griffin rather miraculously regained his eyesight and became an accomplished photographic artist. In his lifetime Griffin wrote 13 books. He'd been designated by Thomas Merton's estate to write Merton's biography, but he was never able to complete the project. The nearly finished portion, dealing with Merton's later years, was published as Follow the Ecstasy: Thomas Merton, The Hermitage Years, 1965-1968 three years after Griffin's death on September 8, 1980. I'm terribly grateful to have had the privilege of meeting both of these men. 

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