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T he two black men racing past the cotton fields in their Mercury were up to no good. No one white knew who they were or why they were in Mississippi, and they had to work extra hard to hide their sophistication and curiosity.


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The night before they drove into the Delta, friends in Jackson had briefed them on tactics, strategy, and proper behavior, as if they were a pair of elderly saboteurs about to be dropped into Nazi-occupied France. The men were warned not to stop and speak to sharecroppers working or walking along the roads.

They were also told not to talk too much in front of the white folks who held all the power and owned everything of value in the Delta. The men appeared to be just a couple of accidental travelers, two innocent old gents from the big city of Atlanta.

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They were nothing of the sort. The sixty-one-year-old in the passenger seat wearing the floppy checkered cap and heavy black-framed glasses was an imposter. He called himself James Rayel Crawford and carried a fake Social Security card in his wallet to prove it. But in actuality he was Ray Sprigle, a nationally famous newspaperman from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The only genuine black man in the speeding Mercury was the lead- footed sixty-six-year-old driver, John Wesley Dobbs. Arguably the most influential black political and civic figure in Atlanta, he was a celebrated public speaker who had two cars and owned a handsome house in the wealthiest black neighborhood in America.

It was May 27, Ray Sprigle had come down into the Deep South to see—and feel— for himself how ten million black Americans lived under the system of legal segregation known as Jim Crow. For nearly three weeks he had been eating, sleeping, and living as a black man. But Sprigle—a white, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—wasn't traveling as himself. More than a decade before John Howard Griffin undertook a similar feat and wrote about it in his memoir Black Like Me , Sprigle disguised himself as black in the Jim Crow South to write a part series for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Steigerwald discovered the lengths Sprigle had gone to during his tour of the South 50 years after it happened.

How one journalist became black to investigate segregation and what that means today

It was a great story about a journalist who had the whole country talking about race in Six years before Brown v. Nearly every one had a sister or brother or some other relative who was living as a white man or woman in the North. Far rarer were instances of white people passing as black, because such a transition meant giving up the benefits of their race. Sprigle is guilty of the common blunder of a great number of other northern whites.

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About wanting to understand, about caring enough and being compassionate. Gaines has also found, in studying men like Sprigle and Griffin, that engaging with racism on an interpersonal level is much different than recognizing it as a structural issue.

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Though Sprigle provided coverage of racism in the South, he failed to cover racism in the North. There were no black doctors until , only two black teachers in integrated schools, and numerous instances of segregation in public pools, theaters and hotels. But the white media seemed disinterested in covering that discrimination. There were also a limited number of white southern journalists talking about issues of racism and injustice at the time.

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One of them was Hodding Carter Sr. Still, Carter spoke out against the violence of lynching and the racial discrimination African-Americans faced. But by focusing on the South, Carter felt Sprigle was singling out the region for a problem that plagued all parts of America. What does that mean, and what does empathy look like? Contemporary history is littered with the surprisingly complex stories of white people passing as black, and here Alisha Gaines constructs a unique genealogy of empathetic racial impersonation--white liberals walking in the fantasy of black skin under the alibi of cross-racial empathy.

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