'30 Days a Black Man' offers insight into current challenges
Police were called about John Mahone, a black man, having an argument with his wife. A cop shot and killed him because he thought Mahone had a knife. Mahone had a can opener.
An officer searching for illegal whiskey saw another black man, Harris Miller, run. When Miller didn’t halt, the cop shot and killed him.
Police were called to subdue R.D. Mance, a black man with mental health issues. A cop subdued him – with his gun.
These shootings happened in Atlanta in 1948.
The white cops didn’t lose their jobs. Nobody marched in the streets. The killings were “justified.” National media – then print and network radio – never noticed them.
Those killings of unarmed black men were brought to the county’s attention by Pulitzer Prize-winning Pittsburgh journalist Ray Sprigle, the first white reporter to go undercover as a light-skinned black man in the Jim Crow South.
Sprigle’s powerful story is beautifully told in “30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story that Exposed the Jim Crow South,” by journalist Bill Steigerwald. (Disclaimer: Bill, a longtime friend, edited my column for years.)
Posing as black, Sprigle, 61, was escorted through the Deep South by John Wesley Dobbs, a black civil rights pioneer from Atlanta, who believed change must come through the ballot box (his grandson would become mayor of Atlanta).
Dobbs, 66, introduced Sprigle to sharecroppers, local black leaders and families of lynching victims. They visited ramshackle black schools and slept in the homes of prosperous black farmers and doctors.
Sprigle, a seasoned journalist, was appalled by what he saw.
There weren’t just separate water fountains, bathrooms and elevators for blacks. Courtrooms used separate Bibles for blacks. Stores wouldn’t allow black women to try on clothes. White kids rode buses to school; black kids walked.
Sprigle’s shocking, angry and persuasive series was syndicated to about a dozen major newspapers, from New York to Seattle. Time magazine played it up big.
No white paper in the South ran it, but 10 million blacks in the land of Jim Crow could read Sprigle’s powerful words for seven straight weeks on the front page of the Pittsburgh Courier, then America’s largest black paper.
In 1948, few white Americans were aware of how unjust, unequal and humiliating daily life was for black Americans in the segregated South.
But during a three-month period leading up to the Truman-Dewey race in 1948, Sprigle had the whole country and national media debating the future of legal segregation.
The conversation he initiated temporarily lost its steam, however.
It wasn’t until 1955, through the power of network television, that the North’s conscience would be awakened for good.
As Steigerwald writes, “news footage of ugly mobs taunting schoolchildren and local governments using clubs, police dogs and fire hoses on peaceful American citizens were ultimately more persuasive than Sprigle’s colorful words.”
Still, Sprigle initiated an important national discussion in the media that would eventually culminate in equal civil rights for all Americans.
Regrettably, in 2020, with millions of Americans galvanized by their disgust at George Floyd’s treatment and death, the discussion is far from over.
All productive discussions – all meaningful solutions – require calm and reason.
Here’s a good starting point: Why don’t we work harder to fully understand each other’s unique experiences and difficulties – so we may finally solve America’s 400-year racial dilemma.
Tom Purcell, author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood,” a humorous memoir available at amazon.com, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc.