A Glimpse of Our Past: York Junior College Student Convocation, 1965
John Howard Griffin, author of the bestselling book Black Like Me, spoke to a crowd of nearly 1,500 on September 28, 1965, in YJC’s gymnasium.
During the one-hour lecture, Griffin discussed his experiences as a white man passing for Black in the Jim Crow South of 1959.
Griffin was born and raised in Mansfield, Texas. In 1941, he was awarded a scholarship in music to the University of Poitiers in France. It was while he was there that he first witnessed an unsegregated society. He was in a café with a friend when a Black man sat down next to him. Griffin asked his companion, “Do you allow them here?” His friend responded, “Why not?” Griffin said, “This was a question I never before asked myself.”
It was a turning point. Griffin joined the French Resistance as a medic, smuggling Jews out of Europe before the Germans took over France. Addressing the audience at YJC, he compared the purge of Jews in Europe by the Nazis to the abuses of people of color in the South. He said, “After the War when I came back to the South, everything was the same except that instead of the ‘Jewish problem’ it was the ‘Negro problem’.” Griffin was struck by the attitudes of educated, spiritual people who possessed “blind spots of irrationality” where civil rights were concerned.
Griffin concluded, “a society cannot frustrate a human being without not only destroying him but itself as well,” but he believed there was some hope for equality. He added, “Those things that unite us as human beings are common things, and those things that separate us are superficial.” He received a standing ovation.
According to the student newspaper, The Yorker, Griffin met with a crowd of students in the lobby. When asked if he would consider living as a Black man again, he responded, “It would be more difficult to attempt this experience again because now I know what it is like.”
The title of Griffin’s book is from the poem Dream Variations by Langston Hughes:
Rest at pale evening
A tall slim tree
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.