The Writers Who Went Undercover To Show America Its Ugly Side
Portside Date:
Author: Samuel G. Freedman
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The Atlantic

In the years during and after World War II, the battle against fascism spread to an unanticipated front line: the national conscience of the United States. The warriors in this fight, many of them Black and Jewish veterans of combat abroad, insisted that America confront and rectify its homegrown racial hierarchy and religious intolerance. “Double V” was the slogan coined by the African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, meaning victory over Hitler abroad and over Jim Crow at home.

The seeds of what would eventually become the civil-rights movement included not only mass protest and political mobilization but a wide array of cultural and artistic expressions. Some of them—Frank Sinatra’s song and short film The House I Live In; a Superman radio serial pitting the Man of Steel against a thinly veiled version of the Ku Klux Klan—sought nothing less than a redefinition of American identity that would embrace racial and religious minorities. In his 1945 film, Sinatra came to the defense of a Jewish boy menaced by a gentile mob. On the radio serial a year later, Superman protected a Chinese American teenager from the lethal assault of the “Clan of the Fiery Cross.” The lyrics of The House I Live In captured the new ethos: “The faces that I see / All races and religions / That’s America to me.”

Alongside these sunnier affirmations of inclusion, there appeared a withering critique of American bigotry in the form of a very specific subset of books. All of them, whether fictional or factual, employed the identical device of a writer going undercover to discover and expose the bigoted netherworld of white Christian America. Within the finite period of six years beginning in 1943, these books became both commercial phenomena and effective goads to the national soul. They explicitly sought a mass audience by employing devices borrowed from detective novels, espionage fiction, and muckraking journalism: the secret search, the near-escape from being found out, the shocking revelation of the rot hiding just below the surface of normal life. Whatever these books may have lacked in sentence-to-sentence literary elegance, they made up for with page-turning drama.

Unfortunately, for the most part, they have since been forgotten, or simply overwhelmed by the volume of World War II self-congratulation, however well deserved. But in their own time period, when these books were reaching millions of readers, a victorious America was by no means presumed to be an innocent America. Within a year of V-J Day, the investigative journalist John Roy Carlson released his exposé of domestic right-wing extremism, The Plotters, and laid out the stakes starkly:

We’ve won the military war abroad but we’ve got to win the democratic peace at home. Hitlerism is dead, but incipient Hitlerism in America has taken on a completely new star-spangled face. It follows a ‘Made in America’ pattern which is infinitely subtler and more difficult to guard against than the crude product of the [pro-fascist German American] Bundists. It is found everywhere at work in our nation. It’s as if the living embers had flown over the ocean and started new hate fires here while the old ones were dying in Europe.

Carlson did not need Nazi Germany to alert him to the perils of mass bigotry. His real name was Avedis Derounian, and as a boy, he had fled the Turkish genocide against Armenians. Having mastered English as a high-school student on Long Island and an undergraduate at New York University, Derounian found his way during the late 1930s into Friends of Democracy, an anti-fascist organization led by a Unitarian minister. With the title of chief investigator and a salary of $50 a week, Derounian developed a cover as the publisher of a pro-fascist newspaper, the Christian Defender, and soon found situations where he could immerse himself in the purpose of exposing the purveyors of hate: a pro-Nazi summer camp on Long Island, the “Christian Mobilizers” militia formed by the right-wing radio priest Charles Coughlin, and also a Bund rally in Madison Square Garden that flanked a portrait of George Washington with a pair of swastikas.

Derounian inhabited his doppelgänger so deftly that sometimes he even joined in the shouting. His Christian Defender newspaper looked so genuine that the U.S. State Department launched an investigation of it and Derounian hurriedly stopped publishing. All this derring-do led to some trenchant and disturbing conclusions. “My experience convinced me,” Derounian wrote, “that under the slogans of ‘patriotism’ they were inoculating innocent Americans with the virus of hate, undermining confidence in our leaders, promoting hate and suspicion.”

When his book Under Cover landed—all 521 pages, not counting index, illustrated with dozens of reproduced extremist documents—it was impossible to ignore. According to a compilation by Daniel Immerwahr, a historian of ideas, Under Cover was the best-selling nonfiction book in America in 1943, ultimately going through 20 printings. The Army Air Forces had Derounian speak to enlisted men on the theme “The Enemy Within.”

At the book’s end, Derounian promised readers (and himself), “I am going back to the world I left behind … to live in the sunshine again.” He did no such thing. Instead, he cloaked himself in the character of Robert Thompson, a disgruntled war veteran, and extended his stealthy inquiry from America’s wartime traitors to its peacetime demagogues. Most prominent among them was Gerald L. K. Smith, the minister who founded the America First political party (the name an homage to the isolationist movement that featured the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh) as the electoral vehicle for his virulent racism and anti-Semitism. But Derounian also found extremism in women’s groups with such anodyne names as “United Mothers.”

“The conclusion is inescapable,” Derounian wrote, “that while we have won a war of democracy over fascist evil abroad, we have allowed hate and prejudice to gain a firm foothold at home.” A page later, he continued, “The grim fact is that they have infiltrated into the warp and woof of American life.”

Given the massive attention that Derounian’s books received, it seems entirely possible, even probable, that the novelist Laura Z. Hobson took note of his methodology. Though her married surname obscured the fact, Hobson was the daughter of two Jewish immigrants of socialist leanings, and the Z stood for her family patronymic of Zametkin. Her novel Gentleman’s Agreement—excerpted in Cosmopolitan magazine in late 1946 and published in early 1947—inverted Derounian’s tactic of pretending to be an extremist by having a gentile journalist, Philip Green, purport to be Jewish in order to write a magazine exposé about anti-Semitism. And whereas Derounian had revealed the bellicose, violent style of Jew-hating embodied by Silver Shirts, the German American Bund, and their ilk, Hobson used the fictive Green to unveil the polite, socially acceptable anti-Semitism of the country club and exclusive hotels and neighborhoods. Eventually Green’s own fiancée shows herself to be one of those refined bigots, or at least an apologist for them, and the revelation ruptures the couple’s engagement.

“It’s just that I’ve come to see that lots of nice people who aren’t [anti-Semites] are their unknowing helpers and connivers,” Green lectures his fiancée. “People who’d never beat up a Jew or yell kike at a child. They think antisemitism is something way off there, in a dark crackpot place with low-class morons. That’s the biggest thing I’ve discovered about this whole business.”

Hobson’s message clearly struck a chord. Gentleman’s Agreement went through three printings before its official publication date and ultimately sold 1.6 million copies. As a manual of moral instruction, Gentleman’s Agreement was released in a special Armed Services Edition for the American military. Magnifying the novel’s impact, a film adaptation written by Moss Hart, directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Gregory Peck as Philip Green received eight Oscar nominations in 1948 and won three, including for Best Picture and Best Director. A straight line can easily be drawn from Peck playing one version of the ethical role model in Gentleman’s Agreement and another 15 years later as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

In the same year when the fictive Philip Green loomed so large in American popular culture, an award-winning journalist was undertaking a real-life version of passing. Ray Sprigle of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had already won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. For another investigative scoop, Sprigle had disguised himself as a psychiatric patient in order to expose an abusive state hospital. But to similarly report on racism in the South, Sprigle, who was white, needed to fake his way across the color line. He failed in several attempts to chemically dye his skin, because the substances could cause illness or even death if he kept using them, before settling on shaving his scalp to leave no telltale straight hairs and then tanning for three weeks in Florida. His success at the deception depended on the “one-drop rule” of racial identity, in which any American with the slightest fraction of African ancestry, regardless of pigment, was categorized as Black. In a way, Sprigle was reversing the passing formula deployed by Walter White, the executive director of the NAACP, who used his fair skin and hair to pretend to be white while courageously researching racist attacks, many of them against Black war veterans returning to the South.

With the pseudonym of James R. Crawford and a backstory about being “a light-skinned Negro from Pittsburgh,” Sprigle crossed the Mason-Dixon line—the “Smith and Wesson line to us black folk”—in one of the all-Black railroad carriages known as a “Jim Crow car.” During four “fear-filled weeks,” Sprigle embedded himself in the very heart of the former Confederacy: Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. He bore witness to the financial exploitation of the sharecropping system, the miserly funding for Black schools, the refusal of white hospitals to admit a Black woman needing an emergency Cesarean section, who ultimately died untreated. Sprigle also paid sympathetic attention to the echelon of Black professionals—dentists, professors, doctors, lawyers, NAACP activists, real-estate developers—who nonetheless found their social status to be relegated below the poorest, least-educated white person.

“These whites … were a people entirely alien to me, a people set far apart from me and my world,” Sprigle wrote in his Black persona. “The law of this new land I had entered decreed that I had to eat apart from these pale-skinned men and women—behind that symbolic curtain.” At the same time, he added perceptively, “Not that I wanted to ride with these whites or eat with them. What I resented was their impudent assumption that I wanted to mingle with them, their arrogant and conceited pretense that no matter how depraved and degenerate some of them might be, they [were] … of a superior breed.”

Sprigle produced a 21-part series for the Post-Gazette, “I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days,” which began running in August 1948. Newspapers as wide-ranging as the Pittsburgh CourierThe Seattle Times, and the New York Herald Tribune reprinted the series, providing national exposure. Then, in 1949, Simon & Schuster collected the articles in book form under the title In the Land of Jim Crow.

The effect that derounian, Hobson, and Sprigle had on American public opinion and policy cannot be quantified. But it also seems more than accidental that their books—along with Sinatra’s song and film; the Superman radio series; and such works as Richard Wright’s memoir, Black Boy (1945), and Gunnar Myrdal’s sociological tome, An American Dilemma (1944)—coincided with a surge of activism against racism and anti-Semitism during the 1940s. One need not employ the term woke to suggest that these books, movies, songs, and comics roused many Americans from a complacent moral slumber.

The Democratic Party embraced civil rights for the first time in its platform at the 1948 convention, driving the bloc of southern segregationists to form their Dixiecrat third party. Within weeks of the convention, President Harry Truman issued executive orders desegregating the military and the federal workforce. Also in 1948, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that restrictive covenants, the sort routinely used to keep Black people, Jews, and other minority groups out of certain neighborhoods, were unconstitutional. These efforts amounted to a kind of proto–civil-rights movement, anticipating what we know as the civil-rights movement that launched in the mid-1950s with the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet Ray Sprigle’s book about his time being Black in the South sold only modestly, and that disappointing outcome may well have reflected more than the endemic capriciousness of the publishing industry. The historical moment during and immediately after the war years, when America belatedly began to redress its own deep-seated prejudices, ended as abruptly as one could say the words Cold War. By 1949, the anti-fascist alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union had mutated into global ideological and military rivalry. As Derounian had presciently foreseen in The Plotters, the specter (and partial but exaggerated reality) of communism in the United States had supplanted the actually existing presence of American right-wing extremists as public enemy No. 1. To express the belief that America was imperfect, indeed hypocritical, in its claims of equality, was to risk being branded disloyal and caught up in the Red Scare.

None of Hobson’s subsequent novels nearly equaled the sales of Gentleman’s Agreement. Derounian wrote only one more book in the remaining decades of his life, dying in 1991 at the age of 82. Sprigle died in a car accident in 1957. Four years later, the white writer John Howard Griffin basically adopted Sprigle’s idea and method of traversing the Jim Crow South as a Black man. (Unlike Sprigle, Griffin was able to dye his skin dark without medical risks.) With the civil-rights movement compelling America to once again regard itself in the moral mirror, Griffin’s book Black Like Me sold more than 1 million copies and was adapted for a film. More recently, one of Sprigle’s successors at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bill Steigerwald, recounted the race series in a 2017 book, 30 Days a Black ManAnd Rachel Maddow’s 2022 podcast, Ultra, which focused on the pro-Nazi movement in 1940s America, made reference to Derounian’s work in Under Cover.

Among these authors of the 1940s, Hobson has fared best. But the lingering impact of Gentleman’s Agreement surely owes more to the film adaptation, which neatly pruned away some of the novel’s formulaic subplots, than the book itself. The works of Derounian and Sprigle, so daring in their time, fit very awkwardly within current norms. ABC News lost a federal court case (though the verdict was reversed on appeal) for planting reporters with false résumés as workers in Food Lion supermarkets to expose unsafe practices. The Chicago Sun-Times was denied a Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for a series about corrupt city inspectors that involved creating a phony bar, wryly called the Mirage, that was staffed by journalists and equipped with hidden cameras. As for a journalist or nonfiction author pretending to be a Black person, even for the sake of chronicling discrimination, the gambit would assuredly be reviled as cultural appropriation at best and its own form of liberal racism at worst.

And in Trumpian America, the excretions of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and on down the list hardly feel the need to hide. Yet, for that very reason, there is immense value in cracking open the books of Derounian and his fellow truth detectives from nearly 80 years ago. They provide a piercing reminder of the deep roots, indeed the nearly identical vocabulary and populist demagoguery, of the hatred on such lurid display today.

[Samuel G. Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights.]

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