WHEN THE SUPREME COURT HANDED down its groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education decision fifty years ago, I was working on my curveball and didn’t notice. There were other momentous events of 1954, of course—the McCarthy hearings, the various permutations of the cold war, the advent of Elvis—but the most important and far-reaching was the Court’s ruling to end the “separate but equal” doctrine. Still, as someone who had grown up in a segregated world, I didn’t really understand the emotional and psychological impact of Jim Crow until 1961, when I read a book called Black Like Me. Written by John Howard Griffin, it was a remarkable account of a journey through the Deep South by a white man posing as a Negro. Today this American classic is little known among my students at the University of Texas, but a “definitive edition,” published in May by San Antonio’s Wings Press, should attract a whole new generation of readers.
Griffin lived an extraordinary life. Born in Dallas in 1920, he left home at fifteen to travel alone to France, where he pursued—in French—a classical education at the Lycée Descartes in Tours and also studied medicine and music, which had always interested him. With the onset of World War II, he joined the French Resistance, helping transport to safety Jewish children disguised as mental patients. Returning to Dallas in 1941, he joined the Army Air Forces and spent three years in the South Pacific, studying the indigenous culture of a remote island in the Solomons. It was there, in 1945, that he suffered an injury that would leave him blind for seven years. In 1955 he became paralyzed for a year from a case of spinal malaria contracted during his time in the islands.
By then Griffin was living on a farm near Mansfield, southeast of Fort Worth, and the next year he