John Howard Griffin was born on June 16, 1920, in Dallas, Texas. When he traveled to France as a teenager to attend school, Griffin was shocked to discover that the French did not share in the white-supremacist racial attitudes of many Texans. As a result, Griffin was forced to confront his own ingrained assumptions about race, and quickly became committed to the cause of ending racism and achieving racial equality in America. Griffin finished high school in 1938, and remained in France to study medicine and music theory. When World War II broke out, Griffin fought with the underground French Resistance, and then joined the U.S. Army from 1942–1945. He sustained a concussion in battle toward the end the war, and, suddenly and unexpectedly, the injury caused him to lose his sight while walking down a street in Paris.
In 1947, the blinded Griffin returned to America, where he moved in with his parents in Midland, Texas. In 1952, he married, and established his own residence on a ranch near Mansfield. A practicing Catholic, Griffin combined his moral commitment to the cause of racial justice with a burgeoning career as a writer. He began to write on racial themes for newspapers and magazines, and published a memoir, The Devil Rides Outside, about his religious experiences at a French abbey.
In 1957, Griffin's eyesight returned as suddenly as it had left him. After more than a decade of living with blindness, Griffin used his newly recovered sight to redouble his efforts as a writer and humanitarian. In 1959, Griffin, disheartened by the climate of racial conflict in America, decided to take a relatively extreme measure in order to understand what life was like for black Americans: he would undergo medical treatment to change the color of his skin and pose as a black man. Griffin lived as a black man for nearly two months, during which time he traveled extensively throughout the South, experiencing white racial prejudice and black solidarity firsthand. These experiences became the basis for Black Like Me, a memoir of his experiences as a black man.
Griffin's memoir explores themes of racism, segregation, and the human capacity for love amid the turbulent climate of black society in the late 1950s. Griffin experiences everything from the difficulty of finding a restroom in New Orleans to the uplifting atmosphere of Montgomery, Alabama in the era of Martin Luther King, Jr. Published at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a time of enormous transition in American race relations, Black Like Me proved to be by far Griffin's most successful and controversial book, igniting a firestorm of public reaction that led to his being burned in effigy on the main street of his hometown. Faced with persecution from white hate groups and open hostility from many people throughout the South, Griffin moved his family to Mexico for several years before eventually returning to Texas.
Griffin died of diabetes in 1980, after a life dedicated to improving conditions in black communities across the United States. Today he is remembered chiefly for Black Like Me, but he is also notable for his humanitarian work: Griffin's decades-long effort to create dialogue between white communities and black communities throughout the South led to his receiving the National Council of Negro Women Award in 1960, and the Pope John XIII Pacen in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 1964.