The Complicated Racial Politics of Going “Undercover” to Report on the Jim Crow South

By | February 17, 2017

In May 1948, Ray Sprigle traveled from Pittsburgh to Atlanta to rural Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. He talked to sharecroppers and black doctors and families whose lives were torn apart by lynching. He visited desperately underfunded schools for black children and resort towns where only white people were allowed to bathe in the ocean. He spoke with scores of African-Americans, the introductions made by his travel companion, NAACP activist John Wesley Dobbs.

In one of the most striking moments of his reporting trip, he met the Snipes family—a black family forced to flee their home after their son was killed voting in a Georgia election. “Death missed [Private Macy Yost Snipes] on a dozen bloody battlefields overseas, where he served his country well,” Sprigle later wrote. “He came home to die in the littered door-yard of his boyhood home because he thought that freedom was for all Americans, and tried to prove it.”

But Sprigle—a white, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—wasn’t traveling as himself. He traveled as James Rayel Crawford, a light-skinned black man with a shaved head who told his sources he was collecting information for the NAACP. 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 21-part series for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Sprigle was so far ahead of the curve, his exploit was forgotten,” says Bill Steigerwald, himself a journalist who worked for years at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the author of a new book called 30 Days a Black Man. Steigerwald discovered the lengths Sprigle had gone to during his tour of the South 50 years after it happened. “I thought, oh my god, this is an unbelievable story, how come I’ve never heard of it? It was a great story about a journalist who had the whole country talking about race in 1948.” (Smithsonian Magazine)

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