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Racism and the Grapes of Wrath

When we think of the civil rights movement, we remember the early 60's and men like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, impassioned leaders who would slowly wrestle civil rights from the hands of an unwilling white majority. But not all whites were resistant to the idea of blacks being fully equal to them. Twenty years earlier, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck wrote the following letter to the president of 20th Century Fox Films:

New York
January 10, 1944

Dear Sir,

I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro there was a Negro of dignity, purpose and personality. Sine this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.

John Steinbeck


That letter was followed by a telegram sent 3 weeks later on February 19, 1944, stating, "I REQUEST MY NAME BE REMOVED FROM ANY CONNECTION WITH ANY SHOWING OF THIS FILM."

Steinbeck's request was never granted.

In a letter written the same day to Annie Laurie Williams, he said:
"It does not seem right that knowing the effect of the picture on many people, the studio still lets it go. As for Hitchcock, I think his reasons are very simple.
1. He has been doing stories of international spies and masterminds for so long that it has become a habit.
2. He is one of those incredible English middle class snobs who really and truly despise working people."

John Steinbeck was a man of courage, principle, and conviction who didn't wait until it was acceptable to cry out for fairness and equality. In 1962 during the hottest part of the civil rights debate the deeply introverted Steinbeck spoke out again in his book, Travels with Charley, in which he chronicled their journey together through 38 states in search of America. "In Salinas in California, where I was born and grew and went to school gathering the impressions that formed me, there was only one Negro family... [and] the Cooper boys were my friends. Now these were the only Negroes I knew or had contact with in the days of my flypaper childhood, and you can see how little I was prepared for the great world. When I heard, for example, that Negroes were an inferior race, I thought the authority was misinformed. When I heard that Negroes were dirty, I remembered Mrs. Cooper's shining kitchen. Lazy? The drone and clop of Mr. Cooper's horse-drawn dray in the street outside used to awaken us in the dawn. Dishonest? Mr. Cooper was one of the very few Salinians who never let a debt cross the fifteenth of the month. If in Salinas anyone from a wiser and more sophisticated world had asked, 'How would you like your sister to marry a Cooper?' I think we would have laughed. For it might have occurred to us that a Cooper might not have wanted to marry our sister, good friends though we all were."

And Steinbeck was more than willing to share his views face to face: "Recently a dear Southern friend instructed me passionately in the theory of 'equal but separate.' 'It just happens,' he said, 'that in my town there are three new Negro schools not equal but superior to the white schools. Now wouldn't you think they would be satisfied with that? And in the bus stations the washrooms are exactly the same. What's your answer to that?'

I said, 'Maybe it's a matter of ignorance. You could solve it and really put them in their places if you switched schools and toilets. The moment they realized that your schools weren't as good as theirs, they would realize their error.'

And do you know what he said? He said, 'You trouble-making son of a bitch.' But he said it smiling."

The most poignant of Steinbeck's stories occurs near the end of the book as he reminisces about earlier days: "I lived then in a small brick house in Manhattan, and, being for the moment solvent, employed a Negro. Across the street and on the corner there was a bar and restaurant. One winter dusk when the sidewalks were iced I stood in my window looking out and saw a tipsy woman come out of the bar, slip on the ice, and fall flat. She tried to struggle up but slipped and fell again and lay there screaming maudlinly. At that moment the Negro who worked for me came around the corner, saw the woman, and instantly crossed the street, keeping as far from her as possible.

When he came in I said, 'I saw you duck. Why didn't you give that woman a hand?'

'Well, sir, she's drunk and I'm Negro. If I touched her she could easy scream rape, and then it's a crowd, and who believes me?'

'It took quick thinking to duck that fast.'

'Oh, no sir!' he said. 'I've been practicing to be a Negro a long time.'"

During his lifetime, John Steinbeck did what he could to make the world a better place for all of us.

Are you doing what you can?

~ Roy H. Williams

To view the archives click here.
Invisible Heroes is a collection of more than 100 biographical stories written by Roy H. Williams, the Wizard of Ads. You can read a few of these stories in the archives of this web page, but most of them are inaccessible because they're soon to be published in a book.

We create our heroes from our hopes and dreams. And then they create us in their own image.Heroes raise the bar we jump and hold high the standards we live by. They're the embodiment of all we're striving to be.

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