30 Days a Black Man: How Ray Sprigle Exposed Jim Crow in 1940s America [Reason Podcast]
"I have such a deeper appreciation for the punishment that black people received from their government for so long and the crass politics that perpetuated it."
In 1948, veteran newsman Ray Sprigle, best-known for having exposed Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black's membership in the Ku Klux Klan, published an explosive series detailing his month-long trip through the Jim Crow South. A white man, Sprigle altered his appearance and passsed as black so that he could experience firsthand a part of the country that most Americans either didn't know much or care much about. Traveling with the well-known NAACP activist John Wesley Dobbs, Sprigle (pronounced sprig-el) published 21 articles and a book that detailed the ways in which segregation was ruthlessly enforced at every level of interaction between the races. Party-line phone operators, for instance, would never address blacks as mister or missus on a call and shop owners would drape napkins or tissues over a black woman's head when she tried on a hat.
Bill Steigerwald's powerful new book, 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South, documents Sprigle's expose and does a masterful job of recreating an America in which de facto and de jure segregation was the rule not just in the former Confederacy but much of the North as well. It's a deeply disturbing and profoundly moving account of what Steigerwald, himself a veteran newsman whose previous book forced the publisher of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley to reclassify the supposed travelogue as fiction, calls "superstars" fighting for equality under the law (along with Sprigle and Dobbs, Steigerwald points to NAACP head Walter White, who chose to identify as black despite being able to pass as white, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady whose commitment to civil rights bore most of its fruit during the Truman years).
"When anybody goes back in history," Steigerwald tells Nick Gillespie in the latest Reason Podcast, you learn
that nothing is new, everything was worse, and what you thought was simple or true was not. When you look back at '48 and you see this stuff, and Ray Sprigle's reporting, he was a reporter. When he heard guys in Atlanta say, "Oh, Atlanta's a great city for black people. Nothing ever happens here." Well, he went down the courthouse and dug up some records and he came up with three cases in the last two years where young black males, this sounds a little familiar, were shot dead by cops or trolley conductors who were armed at the time and were able to shoot anybody. They were shot dead and the defense was always, "Oh, I thought he was reaching for a gun or something. I shot him dead," and they all got off. I mean, you could take those examples and put them in the paper today and people would say, "Well, yeah."…
I have such a deeper appreciation for the punishment that black people received from their government for so long and the crass politics that perpetuated it.
Read Sprigle's original series here.
Produced by Ian Keyser.
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This is a rush transcript. It has not been checked for spelling or errors—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: Today we're talking with Bill Steigerwald. He's a longtime newspaper man, author of several books, most recently an incredible story called 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South. Bill, thanks for talking to us.
Bill Steigerwald: Hi. How are you doing?
Nick Gillespie: You worked in Pittsburgh newspapers for a long time, and this news story is about a guy named Ray Sprigle who was at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a white reporter, editor, journalist, at that point. In the 1940's, he was most famous for exposing Hugo Black's membership in the Ku Klux Klan, when he was elevated or nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States. What did Ray Sprigle do that moved you to write a book about his 30 days as a black man?
Bill Steigerwald: Well, what he did, and he did it throughout his whole career, was an amazing career in Pittsburgh entirely. I've always said that if he had worked at The New York Times and done everything he did, by 1950 Spencer Tracy would have played him in a movie. Sprigle was what they call an old time newspaper man and he was a tremendous writer. He had literary fiction skills. He was a pulp fiction writer in his youth. He became a journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he was an editor for a while, and then he became their start reporter. He was their front page reporter, he did 50 stories a year, he did 21 part series on crime in Pittsburgh, six part series on black market meat during World War 2, sales of black market meat.
He was the greatest journalist in Pittsburgh in the 20th century. I don't think there's any question about that. Even if he hadn't won the Pulitzer for exposing Hugo Black's KKK ties, he did so much and I worked at the Post-Gazette in 1995 and we were doing World War 2 50th anniversary pieces, and I came across Sprigle's 1944 series on black market meat sales in Pittsburgh. He took his false teeth out, got some old clothes, rented an old truck and went out into the marketplace of Pittsburgh and basically bought a ton of meat illegally.
Nick Gillespie: Because everything was rationed at that point, right? In the US.
Bill Steigerwald: Yes, and he didn't use points and everything else. Then he wrote a six-part series about it on the front page and the local Office of Price Administration called him in after his first article he wrote and said, "Hey, tell us what you know." He said, "Don't worry, you'll read about it in the paper." Eventually, the OPA brought the federal guys here to Pittsburgh and held hearings. Anyway, he did that and I said, "Wow." The stories were written like so passionately. It wasn't any of this, "Authorities say this." Sprigle was, as I say, a great fiction writer, a great reporter, and he wrote with enormous authority about anything he wrote about. If he was writing about black market meat sales, he was writing about state mental hospitals, he did like three or four major pieces on state mental hospitals in Pennsylvania.
Nick Gillespie: Let's get to the black market meat and, Jesus, I stepped in it didn't I? But about… That was in '44, he wrote about black markets in meat during wartime, but then in 1947 and I guess the book came out in '48, he actually posed as a black man in the Jim Crow South, right?
Bill Steigerwald: Right.
Nick Gillespie: Talk a little bit about, what was the contours of his trip and why did he do it? Then, we'll talk more about the specifics of your book, of your account, 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South, which is a terrifyingly urgent read I think for all Americans, to be honest. Like, I can't say enough about the book and what it recovers, but talk about Sprigle. He decided to tour the South as a black man. How did that happen?
Bill Steigerwald: He was always looking for a great newspaper story and he found them easily. He came up with the idea, and it's not exactly clear where the idea came from but he came up with the idea based on reports that he had heard of black soldiers coming back from World War 2 and going back to Georgia and wanting to go to vote and having the crap kicked out of them, or killed in a couple cases for merely doing that, or expressing the desire to vote. He came upon the idea of disguising himself as a black man and going into the Jim Crow South for a month so that he could see for himself the conditions under which 10 million black people lived under Jim Crow.
This was 1947 when he came up with the idea. He left in the spring of '48. He tried to dye his skin a couple of times with chemicals and walnut juice, mahogany, and it didn't work or his skin fell off. I guess he could have killed himself if he had really doused himself with a couple …
Nick Gillespie: You also point out eventually he got a really bad sunburn, cut his hair short, et cetera, and he could pass. This was one of the things, I mean we hear in contemporary America I guess, we're more likely to hear stories, and you talk about this a bit in the book, of people passing as black for various reasons. Whereas back then, obviously blacks tried to pass as white, or as Italians sometimes, or Cubans, and it was actually relatively easy in the South because there was an extremely broad gradient of skin color, and in a way, it exposes the total fiction of the Jim Crow South where you could effectively be white but pass as black because it wasn't about anything real on a certain level.
Bill Steigerwald: Exactly. He was told after he was experimenting a while, when he finally connected with the NAACP and Walter White and they found a guide, and he was talking to people in Atlanta about what he should do to color his skin and the one guy who was an executive at an insurance company said, "Hey, just go down and get a really heavy tan." He said, "If you're in the South and you say you're black, nobody's going to argue with you" and as you say, the gradient of colors in the South went from Walter White who was whiter looking than Harry Truman, I guess. He was the head of the NAACP and he considered himself a negro, and that's the kind of color was almost insignificant, except for the crazy people in the South who thought that if you had two drops of black blood, you sit in the back of the bus.
Nick Gillespie: So he, his series and his adventure I guess, for lack of a better term, this was before "Black Like Me" which came out later in the '50s, but it was after the movie or around the time of the movie "Gentleman's Agreement" which talked about antisemitism. Talk about his traveling buddy, John Wesley Dobbs, and then just give a very brief sketch of where they started from and where they ended up. Then, let's talk about some of the specifics because I think, and this is obviously part of what Sprigle was doing, and again, your book is an incredibly painful and powerful recreation of the time, and part of that was that Americans outside of the South didn't know or didn't care about the every day indignities that were being heaped on blacks. That was part of what he was trying to expose, right?
Bill Steigerwald: Absolutely, and Sprigle was not naive. He was a seasoned journalist as there ever was, and he was very smart, but he had no idea what was in store for him when he went into the South. The NAACP eventually found him a guide named John Wesley Dobbs, D-o-b-b-s. This guy, one of the superstars of history. I'm afraid we've forgotten many of them. He was a prominent black man, social and political leader from Atlanta. He quoted Shakespeare plays as a drop of a hat. He had memorized 500 poems. He was a tremendous orator. He had made himself into a leader and he would say that he was fighting for the black race all the time.
He was considered a race man, was what they called him, and he wheeled and dealed in Atlanta and got black voters to sign up and to register, and then he would trade those votes with the white city hall mayor and everybody, so that they would get streetlights for the black sections of playgrounds, for the black parts of town. He was an unbelievable superstar. He was basically Sprigle's guide, host, and mentor, and protector for 30 days. He drove Sprigle around, the two of them, in a 1947 Mercury with suicide doors, and looked like a tank. They went from Savannah to the Delta. They were based in Atlanta where Dobbs lived, and they would go on these sort of excursions over a month.
Dobbs passed Sprigle off as a light skinned negro from the South who worked for the NAACP as a field investigator, so Sprigle could interview everyone he talked to, whether it was a sharecropper in a shack or whether it was a professor at Atlanta University. Sprigle saw all those people. He saw the top middle class layer of black society in the South. It was thin, but it existed. Every town had a black doctor, a black dentist, a black whatever, and Dobbs knew many of those people. He took Sprigle around to …
Nick Gillespie: And you talk about it in the book when they would show up in towns throughout the South, and it's not like the North was any kind of utopia for blacks, but a lot of times there were either no hotels at all or certainly no hotels that would house blacks …
Bill Steigerwald: Absolutely.
Nick Gillespie: … So there was a whole informal, almost like Airbnb or home sharing economy.
Bill Steigerwald: You know, as we know markets are pretty amazing at solving problems and creating things when either they're illegal or they're not provided by government. In this case, because blacks had virtually nowhere to stay except in the big cities, in hotels that were really rough. I mean, you wouldn't take your family to one of these hotels. The black middle class had created this network, as you say, it was like Airbnb only all the black people in the South and the small towns would host fellow travelers and they would not charge for them this. But there was a reciprocal kind of arrangement and it was all through the South. That's how black middle class people and businessmen, salesmen or whatever, that's how they traveled, that's where they stayed. That's where Dobbs and Sprigle stayed at probably 15 or 20 of these homes throughout the South.
Nick Gillespie: Talk about the way in which, on their first train, the leg of I guess they started out in Washington D.C. At the end of the first train leg, Sprigle and Dobbs get out and they go to hail a cab and Sprigle has forgotten that he's now a black man in the South, and the South pretty much started in Washington D.C. at the time, and he went out to hail a cab and Dobbs was like, "No, what are you doing?" They have to go around to the back of the train station and wait for the negro cab.
Bill Steigerwald: That was actually in Atlanta. They met in Washington at Union Station, which Washington D.C. was not an official Jim Crow town, but it might as well have been. It was eventually a Southern town and that was thanks to starting with Wilson, but then thanks to all of the Southern segregation senators and congressman who basically ran D.C. in those days. Remember, it didn't have that autonomy that it has now, and they tried to set it up like a Southern segregated town. Washington was a bad town, but they hopped on a segregated train, a Jim Crow train from Union Station and went overnight to Atlanta.
When they got to Atlanta, Sprigle walking ahead of his friend Dobbs who looked I think like the ambassador from Ethiopia, he had about three bags, and he was a dude this guy. Dobbs was a superstar. Sprigle ran ahead to get the cab and he went out the white exit, and he was approaching the white cabs when his friend Dobbs yelled at him and said, "Oh, oh, come back." Then he had to come back and go out the black exit to where the Jim Crow black colored cabs were, but there weren't any there and they had to wait for a while.
That was Sprigle's immediate introduction to that whole society where Washington wasn't quite that bad, but Atlanta was … Man, you didn't ride in an elevator. Everybody knows about the water fountains and everything, but they had a separate black bible and a separate white bible in courtrooms.
Nick Gillespie: Tell the listeners about what it was like shopping for shoes and hats in the segregated South. Because these are the small details which … Obviously the stories of lynchings and beatings and physical intimidating and assaults are horrifying, but it becomes unbearable when you telescope it down or microscope it down to these really petty interactions. But how did black people shop for shoes and hats in the South?
Bill Steigerwald: Well, somebody called Jim Crow "legalized humiliation" and that's pretty much what it was. Women would have to sit in the back of shoe stores, for instance, on a bench. That's where they would try on the shoes. If they went into department stores, they would often put Kleenex or a cloth on the black woman's head when she tried on a hat. In other places, if you tried on something, you bought it, so you often had to buy the dress or the blouse or shirt or whatever without ever trying it on. In Pittsburgh, that was true as well, well into the '40s, the same thing. Blacks could not try on clothes in Downtown Pittsburgh as.
Nick Gillespie: Well you know, in the book you mention that New York City was generally considered the best city for black people in terms of they head the most room to live and to be and all of that. Why was New York different than other Northern cities? What sparked that?
Bill Steigerwald: You know, that's a good question. I would say that in part it was because of the numbers. I think there were somewhere around 7 or 800,000 black people in New York which when you get that many numbers, things start to happen, and you're treated a little better. Of course, they could vote, so they had political power to some degree, that they didn't have at all in the Jim Crow South. Poor Tom Dewey, the big loser of '48, he was an … I mean, you look at now, he was as liberal as you could get, and New York State and the City of New York were the most liberal states in the union in terms of race.
Now, Pennsylvania and New York had equally strong laws against discrimination, but they weren't enforced in Pennsylvania. I mean, you had the big unions and big companies in Pittsburgh. I'm more familiar with Pittsburgh obviously, because that's what I was focusing on, but the unions, my favorite was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and they had 1400 members in Pittsburgh, and it had one black. That's the kind of segregation exited in Pittsburgh, seriously in every way. In education, in jobs, and in housing, and any kind of opportunity. But New York was ahead of the curve on all of that, and Dewey was generally considered and loved by the black press for being ahead of the curve on immigration.
Nick Gillespie: You mention Harry Truman who one reelection in 1948 and defeating Dewey. Truman came from Missouri which was a union state in the Civil War but a slave state, and he himself was pretty racist for a while, but then he flipped because I mean, he did integrate the armed forces during the Korean War, and did a couple of other … All of these people have very mixed records on race, but what was driving … Eleanor Roosevelt is, I mean she's in the background of the book, but she's one of the heroes on race in American history and I think Libertarians don't have a lot good to say about Eleanor Roosevelt, but she was …
Bill Steigerwald: No. I grew up with my dad making fun of Eleanor Roosevelt for every reason, but he was a Republican and a conservative. I've basically come 180 degrees on Eleanor Roosevelt. She was truly a liberal and cared about black people and tried to get first her husband and then Harry Truman, and Harry Truman was pissed sometimes. I guess in his diary he would say, he'd basically say that, "Eleanor was torturing me again over this stupid subject" but she really had Truman's ear and Eleanor Roosevelt was also big buddies with Walter White, another superstar of my book, and there are about half a dozen of them.
Walter White lost the history, ran the NAACP from the early '30s 'til 1955, and he was a dynamo, a lobbyist for his race. He was busting the chops of the FDR people, he got close with Eleanor, and then he was busting Truman's chops too, and he pretty much pushed Truman into making a speech in 1947 which was the first presidential announcement that the federal government was going to start leaning on states who were discriminating basically. I mean, it was all about the South, Jim Crow, he didn't even actually say the word negro or black or anything in the speech, but everybody knew what he was talking about when he said that from now on, the federal government was going to make sure that everyone had their rights regardless of their race.
Nick Gillespie: Take us through one more anecdote about Sprigle and Dobbs in the South that you think is particularly illustrative of the experience and the temperament of Ray Sprigle.
Bill Steigerwald: Well Sprigle, again, he was no naive guy, he was no liberal crusader. He was a conservative Republican, a constitutionalist, and one of the few lengthy notes in his notebooks that I found, he was talking about the importance of property rights and without property, you were just part of the swarm and stuff like that. He was very much a constitutionalist, and when he saw what he saw, and he lived like a black man. He wasn't a reporter, a white guy tagging along with a black guy, looking into the black world. He was pretending to be a black. He had to watch his step, he had to learn very quickly what blacks had to learn over a lifetime, and certainly in their childhood, that they could not speak first to a white man, they could not call him anything but Mr They would never use his first name. They had to sit in the back seat if a white person was driving a car. I mean, on and on, and on.
Nick Gillespie: Well, you talk again, to bring it down to these minute details on party lines and most people in the '30s certainly, and even into the '40s had party lines for phones, and if you were a black person you wouldn't be called Mr or Mrs.
Bill Steigerwald: Oh yeah. No, that's right.
Nick Gillespie: It really is a …
Bill Steigerwald: The operators would refuse to say that, "Mrs Jackson is on the line." They would demand her first name and they.
Nick Gillespie: I mean, it is, I mean it's a systematic and ritualized humiliation of yeah … Give an example of one choice anecdote where Sprigle loses his shit or is just like totally floored by what he's experiencing.
Bill Steigerwald: Well, I'm trying to think of a specific thing. It happened over a month, but he very quickly felt like he was a second class citizen. He understood that, and I'm trying to think if there was a specific event. I mean, part of the thing was that he watched his step very carefully. He was 61 years old. He was not interested in getting hit over the head or thrown in jail for protesting Jim Crow customs. He was as servile and as sheepish as any 61 year old black man might want to be, when he was in public. I'm trying to think. There wasn't any major events. We're going to have to leave it to Hollywood to come up with some dramatic event.
I mean, Sprigle and Dobbs slept in the same double bed on a prosperous farm in Northwest Georgia, the night of a picnic that was happening up there where Sprigle found himself to be the only white man at this picnic of about 150 people South of Chattanooga, but it was actually in Georgia. They asked Sprigle to stand up at one point, the host, the man who owned the farm asked Mr. Sprigle to stand up. His name was Crawford, that was the name he was going by. They said, "Mr. Crawford, tell us what the state of the negro is in Pittsburgh, where you're from."
Sprigle stood up and he said he was willing to carryout a lot of deception but he wasn't going to go that far, and he just begged off and he said, he told the truth, "I am not in a position to really say that" and he sat down. He was nervous about that. He wasn't really found out by anybody of any importance to be a white man. One or two people suspected him but it was no big deal. They traveled 3000 miles by car, they pissed in the bushes together, they slept in a double bed together, they ate in crummy, at the backdoor of a couple of places. They did not get into any trouble with the law or white people or the sheriffs or anything.
There wasn't any major thing. What's interesting about it is he was able to move around for 30 days as a black person and observe from the inside without getting his head busted. But he was passionate about what he saw and when he wrote his series, he came back from his trip and he wrote a 21 part series for the Post Gazette and that was syndicated in other papers around the country, and he let it rip. It was like a page one op-ed piece.
Nick Gillespie: What was the impact? what was the reaction to Sprigle's 21 part series?
Bill Steigerwald: Well, it was pretty amazing. He had the whole country talking about the subject of segregation, legal segregation from coast to coast literally. Newspapers were the big media of the day. Newspapers, news magazines, and network radio. Every paper, every town had a daily paper, and even a small town. Pick a small town in Ohio, you have Springfield, Ohio. They had a newspaper, and if you wanted to find out what was going on in the Arab/Israeli war which had just broken out during their trip, you read your daily Connellsville, PA paper. They would have the maps and all the latest dispatches from Tel Aviv and all that stuff.
Newspapers were extremely powerful. Every family had one basically, basically about 1.3 newspapers per household apparently. His series was a newspaper series, it was page one in about 15 papers, major papers, New York Herald Tribune to Seattle Times, and it got everybody talking. The South got all pissed off. They never printed a word of Sprigle's series, not one paper in the South carried it. It was all carried in the South, and they wrote editorials decrying it and praising it, depending on whether you were in the North or South. Columnists in the North and South wrote about it. Eleanor Roosevelt went gaga over it, Walter White was talking to all the publishers in New York, and Sprigle very quickly got a book deal.
That came out in the spring of '49 called, "In The Land of Jim Crow." Then, there was at the time, there was a show, a radio program called "Town Meeting of the Air" which nobody remebers. It must have been in it's 25th or 30th year by this time in 1948 and it was heard by as many as 10 million people every Tuesday night, and Sprigle, Walter White, Hodding Carter who was the liberal voice of the South, he treated blacks well and he treated them well in his newspaper in Greenville, Mississippi, by he was the diehard segregationist.
Then, Harry Ashmore, who would win a Pulitzer for covering the Little Rock Central High School integration scene in the 1950's, the four of them had this hour long debate. Several million people heard it, 2500 letters were sent in to the program. There were I would say hundreds of editorials, scores and scores of editorials, hundreds of letters to the editor, thousands of letters to the radio station. For about four months, "Segregation, what should we do about legal segregation?" Was debated in the national media and in the local media which was your daily paper, from coast to coast. It came and went and it was all a result of one man, Ray Sprigle. It shows you the power of a single journalist in those days.
Nick Gillespie: And it certainly fed into … I mean, you were talking earlier about how after World War 2, where blacks had an expanded role in the armed forces and they came back, certainly soldiers, veterans, and they were pissed, even more pissed because you fight for your country and then you're told to eat standing up in the back of the restaurant if you're allowed in at all, but Sprigle's work obviously built into that movement which I guess peaked first with the integration of the armed forces during the Korean War, and then Brown versus Board of Education in 1954. It was part of a moment of not just consciousness, being raised on the part of blacks and calls for equality, but also on the parts of whites.
Bill Steigerwald: Yes. It came and went, unfortunately, because this again was in 1948, so it was, what? Six years before Brown versus Board of Education, about seven or eight years before Emmett Till was murdered. That was really the event that caught the attention of the white North. Prior to what Sprigle did, the white North read white papers, and the black folks of America read black papers, and they never read … Well, blacks had to read white papers, but white people never read black papers, and papers like the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest at the time, wrote constantly for decades about how awful Jim Crow was, how blacks were persecuted and political and social and economic problems for the South, the lynchings, and the trials of lynching.
They were over the top advocates for the black people and all rules of journalism were thrown away by these black papers, but white people never read them, so they didn't know what was going on, and white papers didn't cover blacks in the South, in Africa, or in their own backyards, in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh papers, three dailies in 1948 hardly ever wrote a word about the 120,000 blacks living in their area.
Nick Gillespie: The book is "30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South." The author is Bill Steigerwald. Bill, your previous book was about another famous American who took a road trip, John Steinbeck. You retrace the steps that he laid out or the route that he claimed to have taken in "Travels With Charley." Give us a quick capsule summary of what you found, and obviously there's a pattern here. You like guys who go out and spend a lot of time in a car driving around the country, but it turned out you caused a stir yourself when you retraced "Travels With Charley," and what did you immediately find out about Steinbeck's veracity?
Bill Steigerwald: Well, I like to say that I found that Steinbeck was basically a lying bastard. When he did what was supposed to be a nonfiction account, a true account of his trip for his book, "Travels With Charley" which he made in the fall of 1960, and he was on the road 75 days and he drove from Long Island to the top of Maine, out through Chicago, Seattle, Monterey, California, Texas, New Orleans and back. Everybody loves it, kids love it, older people love it because they read it as kids, but I wanted to follow his trail exactly as a journalist, 50 years later, which I did do. My idea at the time was just to compare 2010 America with 1960 America, and the changes and everything.
In the course of doing the research, I very quickly found out that Steinbeck had made up quite a bit of his book, including most of the characters he said he met. I basically proved to the satisfaction of the publisher who changed the introduction to the book for its 50th anniversary and said, "Hey, this isn't quite a true account. It's more fiction than nonfiction."
Nick Gillespie: You even got the New York Times to rail against Steinbeck 50 years after the …
Bill Steigerwald: As a Libertarian and as someone who has spent his life criticizing the liberal bias of the New York Times, to read an editorial, in-house editorial. I mean, we newspaper guys know how important they are. It said, "Bill Steigerwald has discovered an intriguing fact" or something. That's the way it started out. I'm thinking, "All right." But basically what I showed was that Steinbeck's book, "Travels With Charley," which was the only book he ever had that made number one on the New York Times Best Seller list, by the way, and it's nonfiction, that it was a myth that he traveled rough, that he traveled alone, that he traveled slow to discover America, and that he liked America because he didn't like America at all, but he didn't put that in the book.
He traveled with his wife more than half the time, he drove as fast as he could from city to city. I may have overdone it but I think I pretty thoroughly showed that he was a lying bastard. Also, his publisher did a lot of it, too. Steinbeck wrote the original draft which I looked at, handwritten, and then you can see the edits, and the marketing people and the editors at Viking Press were very sly in their way they edited the original draft to make it appear that Steinbeck.
Nick Gillespie: Well it is a kind of fascinating companion to "30 Days a Black Man" because both of these accounts, the power of "Travels With Charley," if it was a novel, it wouldn't have mattered in the same way that the idea that it was a true eyewitness account of 1960's America matter. For Ray Sprigle, that he was telling the truth, and that he was giving details on a word that was real, very important. I find both of these books just tremendous reads and the first one was I mean, "Dogging Steinbeck" is a great work of journalistsic and literary detective work, and it was interesting that biographers of Steinbeck didn't really want to engage you because it complicates all sorts of shit.
We've seen that in other memoirs where people say certain things that either didn't happen or they compile and collate many different people into one character who is not quite really. That's always an ongoing thing, but then "30 Days a Black Man," this book Bill, I just can't praise it enough. It is so harrowing. It's got a great introduction by Juan Williams who helps set the stage, and throughout the book, the way that you go from the larger context of where America was and how black were treated, and then to Sprigle's particular experiences in the way that he came to understand a world that he had been transparent or invisible to him.
What's the takeaway of "30 Days a Black Man?," of Ray Sprigle's living in the Jim Crow South in 21st century America? What do you hope readers take away from this?
Bill Steigerwald: I hope that they take away what I took away after doing the research. I thought I knew enough when I started the book. By the time I was doing, by the time I read about what they had written into the housing codes in Baltimore and Washington and Seattle that said no house shall be sold to a non-Caucasian. By the time I saw the depth and the width and the horrible humiliations imposed upon 10 million American citizens. These weren't immigrants. These were American citizens whose constitutional rights had been deprived. They never really got their full ones, and they were treated like second class, third class citizens. What I would take away from it is that when you see, as you nicely described, the scope of what America was like in 1948, North and South.
Mainly South because it was legalized segregation. It was apartheid. We basically had apartheid before South Africa did, and when you see what black people had to put up with and you see the extent of it, and you think, "Man, I didn't know that going into this." Sprigle didn't know when he went on his trip. I certainly didn't know when I started this book, but I have such a deeper appreciation for the punishment that black people received from their government for so long and the crass politics that perpetuated it. The blindness of the North and the white people. The best people of the North, the good white people of the North had no idea what was going on in the South, had no idea that people were living like it was 1880 in the Mississippi Delta.
None of this was known to the people in 1948 and here I am, I'm 70 years old almost and I'm supposed to be an educated guy, and a man of the world, a newspaper guy, yada-dada-da, and I didn't know 90% of this stuff. Most white people and many, many black people don't know how bad it was, what a nasty country this was, and it was nasty. People can be nasty to each other, as we know, but I contend based on my trip around the country several times in cars that most people are good people and nice people and treat people with respect and dignity and all that good stuff.
But when you are able to impose a regulatory system on a whole set of people the way Jim Crow was, and there was all this extra legal and subtle I guess, "subtle" stuff with the housing policies and things that perpetuated segregation in the North, when you see all that, you think, "Man, we're lucky black people didn't have a lot of guns." They had every right to revolt.
Nick Gillespie: Well, you know, the other thing I think that comes through loud and clear in the book, too, you talk about the half dozen superstars, but whether it's Ray Sprigle or John Wesley Dobbs or Walter White or Eleanor Roosevelt, or John Dewey, the individuals who really stepped up and made a difference, it's also inspiring. I mean, it shouldn't have to happen and it all took too long, but there's also that.
Bill Steigerwald: Absolutely, and somebody like Walter White whose been very much forgotten. He's had a couple books written about him, he wrote some books. He's a good reader and all this stuff. I mean, there should be a mega movie about this guy. He was a total superstar, and there's all kinds of drama because he was so white and the white/black thing, and I mean, it gets complicated.
Nick Gillespie: well. The courage or maybe the stupidity almost of having a choice in 1930's America where you could identify as white or black and choosing black, that's a goddam incredible statement.
Bill Steigerwald: Absolutely. Also, when you ask what I learned, I come up with a three part slogan, and that is what I learned in doing this book and I think you often learn this when anybody goes back in history, that nothing is new, everything was worse, and what you thought was simple or true was not. When you look back at '48 and you see this stuff, and Ray Sprigle's reporting, he was a reporter. When he heard guys in Atlanta say, "Oh, Atlanta's a great city for black people. Nothing ever happens here." Well, he went down the courthouse and dug up some records and he came up with three cases in the last two years where young black males, this sounds a little familiar, were shot dead by cops or trolley conductors who were armed at the time and were able to shoot anybody.
They were shot dead and the defense was always, "Oh, I thought he was reaching for a gun or something. I shot him dead," and they all got off. I mean, you could take those examples and put them in the paper today and people would say, "Well yeah."
Nick Gillespie: Well, we will leave it there. Bill, thank you. Bill Steigerwald, a retired newspaper man who you've been writing more since you've retired, I suspect? Or at least as much. The latest book is "30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South." It's out, you can pick it up at Amazon and Barnes & Noble in all sorts of formats. It tells the tale of Ray Sprigle, a famous journalist from Pittsburgh, a white man who traveled the South as a black man for a month in 1948. Bill, thanks so much. Is there a next project on the drawing board already?
Bill Steigerwald: No, I don't know. Yeah, getting a movie made so I can get paid for all my hard work. No, I mean, I loved doing this story and it was my responsibility to do it about Sprigle. I knew that if I didn't do it, no one ever would because I know his daughter who's still alive, a wonderful person, and I had accumulated information and gone on trips in the South that retrace parts of his original journey. I did that in 1998 and in 2009, so it was either me or nobody, and right now I'm just sort of … I'm an Uber driver, I'm a happy Uber driver. Maybe I'll write a mystery novel about an Uber driver.
Nick Gillespie: Well that, we'll have a different podcast about your experiences as an Uber driver and as part of the sharing and gig economy, because I know that you're a big supporter of that, at a time where the tide seems to be turning but we'll leave that conversation for another time. Thanks again. We've been talking with Bill Steigerwald, the author of "30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South." Bill, thanks so much.
Bill Steigerwald: Thank you, Nick.