Two generations ago John Howard Griffin was a household name in the United States, admired in some places, hated in others. His fame/notoriety grew out of his landmark book, “Black Like Me,” which documented six weeks the white native of Dallas had spent traveling around the Deep South, with chemically darkened skin, posing as an African-American (known then as a Negro) laborer.
Griffin’s book, which recently marked the 50th anniversary of its publication, revealed the extent of white racism and inequality for Blacks in the South. His life threatened, Griffin was labeled “an enemy of the white race.”
Less-known is another part of Griffin’s life – while studying psychiatry in France at the start of World War II he joined the French Resistance and helped smuggle Jewish children to England. His name turned up on a Nazi death list; he escaped the Gestapo, returned to the U.S., enlisting in the Army Air Corps and serving in the South Pacific; wounded, he became blind for a decade. Later a prolific author and popular lecturer, he died in 1980.
The Jewish Week spoke with Robert Bonazzi, a native New Yorker and longtime Texan who is Griffin’s biographer, widower of Griffin’s widow and executor of Griffin’s estate.
Q: How did Griffin – who was not Jewish – get involved with smuggling Jewish children?
A: John Howard Griffin’s involvement with the Defense Passive (“French Underground”) was a consequence of his loyalty to France when it was invaded and occupied by the Nazis. He attended the École de Médecine, worked as a volunteer medic with the Red Cross and was an intern under Pierre Fromenty at the Asylum of Tours. He often proclaimed that France was “the adopted country which formed me, and I could not abandon her in that time of need.”
Along with his Jewish friend, Jean Hussar, they hid European Jewish families and, when it was clear they could not save the adults, smuggled some of the children in a Red Cross ambulance (disguised as mental patients in straitjackets) — from Tours to the Port of St. Nazaire, where other teams transported them to safety in England. This was 1939 (Griffin and Hussar were only 19) and it worked for a time until the Nazi’s erected roadblocks and even children were required to have transportation papers.
Griffin estimated that they saved about 24 Jewish children, but their ruse was exposed by a French spy for the Nazis.
His World War II exploits are not known in the Jewish community — did he ever talk, or write, about what he did?
While Griffin did not write extensively about this early period, he did speak about it in interviews with Studs Terkel and in personal essays, comparing his visits with Black families during the 1960s (whose loved ones were murdered by the KKK) to the secret meetings with Jewish families in Tours.
Do you think Griffin consciously drew a parallel between the Jewish and black experience?
He was honest about the fact that he had not made the obvious connection between anti-Semitism and white racism until later, because as a young man he remained under the delusion that the segregated Southern culture … in which he had grown up … treated Negroes well. His middle-class family was not virulently racist and he grew among so-called good whites who condemned lynching but accepted without question the unconscious culture of white superiority and racial discrimination.
Griffin’s decade of blindness (1946-1957) – when he began to realize he had been an unwitting prisoner of white culture – influenced the intellectual dismantling of prejudices and provided one impetus for the Black Like Me experiment. The 1959 journey through the South disguised as a Negro radicalized him, as he came face to face with his own emotional racism (evidenced by his antipathy toward the black face he encountered in the first mirror reflection in Black Like Me).
But that was only the beginning, as his view of human rights progressed during the 1960s, while lecturing throughout the U.S. and Europe. Later writings about racism — “The Racist Sins of Christians” (1963) and such books as The Church and the Black Man (1969) and A Time To Be Human (1977) — established Griffin as not only a believer in nonviolent resistance, but also as a supporter of Black Power as the natural progression for the Black Liberation Movement.
He worked in concert with many Civil Rights leaders in the south (Dr. King and activist Dick Gregory) and in the north (Roy Wilkins, then head of the NAACP, and community organizer Saul Alinsky).