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7/31/97 Don Rutledge reflects on ‘Black Like Me’ experience

MIDLOTHIAN, Va. (BP)–Growing up near Murfreesboro, Tenn., in the 1930s and ’40s, Don Rutledge saw racial segregation almost everywhere he looked. Except when he looked in the mirror.
“There was just something, some way, that it didn’t make sense at all that you would distrust somebody or hate somebody just on the color of their skin.”
Rutledge lived on a farm and had fun playing with the children of tenant farmers — white and black — who worked for his father. One time he was walking home with some white schoolmates when they started throwing rocks at a group of black students, some of whom lived on the Rutledge farm. He told them to stop, but they didn’t.
“So I ran over to the blacks and started throwing rocks back at the whites,” Rutledge said, chuckling at the memory.
A black woman helped Rutledge’s mother in the kitchen, and one day he found her crying. He asked why. “She said some white man had told her that no niggers had souls, and when they died, that was the end of it, like animals.”
Rutledge told her he would talk to his Sunday school teacher, and make notes, and go to her house Sunday afternoons and teach Bible to her family. They didn’t have a church. Don expected the woman’s family and maybe one more family, but he found a big group waiting. Some walked from two to three miles away for Sunday Bible study.
“It worked out real well. Several people became Christians, and they started a church.”
Through such experiences, perhaps God was keeping an eye on Don for a future task — serving as photographer for the book “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin. Nearly 40 years after its publication, Rutledge recently looked back on that brief but unforgettable assignment in December 1959.
A new book, “Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me” by Robert Bonazzi (Orbis Books), comes out in August. Bonazzi is the husband of Griffin’s widow, Elizabeth.
Rutledge’s part in Black Like Me began stemmed from his determination to make a career of photography and, at age 29, suggesting an article to the Black Star photo agency on black millionaire businessmen in Atlanta.
Sepia magazine, which was similar to Look magazine but aimed at a black readership, liked the idea and assigned a writer to meet Rutledge in Atlanta.
The writer was John Howard Griffin. “At that time I had no idea of his background or what he’d been up to,” Rutledge said. What Griffin, who was white, had been up to was traveling the South disguised as a black man. His skin darkened by medication and makeup, he planned to do a series of articles on his experiences for Sepia, followed by a book.
Griffin recalled their first meeting in Black Like Me, in December 1959.
“The Black Star photographer, Don Rutledge, arrived in his little Renault from Rockvale, Tennessee, around noon … . I liked him immediately. He is a tall, somewhat skinny young fellow, married and has a child — a gentleman in every way.”
For Rutledge the feeling was mutual. “We connected really quickly and had much the same feelings about the race issue at the time in the South.”
After three days on the story project in Atlanta — which Griffin researched as a white writer, having learned how to switch back and forth — Griffin was ready to return to New Orleans, the starting point for his journey as a black man. “(Rutledge) was anxious to get back to his wife and child,” Griffin wrote. “I asked him if he knew a first-rate photographer in New Orleans, since I wanted to go back over the terrain again as a Negro and have photos made. The project fascinated him and we arranged to drive to New Orleans together so he could photograph it.”
Rutledge recalled, “I called Black Star and said I was going to disappear for a while, but I’d be in touch. I didn’t give details. We got in my little car and rode from Atlanta to Alabama to Mississippi and to New Orleans, where we did most of the photography.”
Griffin, in his black identity, and Rutledge, maintaining his white identity, nevertheless found it easy to communicate on religion and other subjects. “He’d talk about his beliefs; I’d talk about mine.” Griffin told Rutledge some of the things that had happened to him as a black man, but Rutledge didn’t find the information shocking. “It was very typical. I was not surprised at all, really.”
For lodging, sometimes the two men split up, other times Griffin knew places where they could stay. “It was always kind of a tense time of trying to work all these things out.” On Dec. 14 — 10 days after the two men first met, Griffin wrote, “Finally the photos were taken, the project concluded, and I resumed for the final time my white identity.”
Asked whether he had any inkling of the impact their project would have, Rutledge replied, “No, I don’t think either one of us did. John was really wanting people to know about it, but I’m almost positive he didn’t have any idea of what was going to happen out of it.”
Sepia’s publication of Griffin’s articles with Rutledge’s photos beginning in early 1960 — under the title “Journey Into Shame” — started a new chapter in the lives of the two men. Griffin was besieged with interview requests; he went on television with Dave Garroway, Mike Wallace and others.
Black Star began getting calls and telegrams from publications all over the globe, Rutledge said. Magazines were bidding against each other for the rights to the photos; figures in the hundreds of thousands of dollars were mentioned.
Realizing a lot of money was to be made, the publisher of Sepia began to pressure Rutledge for the negatives. “Here I was out there on the farm, and he was just screaming at me on the phone, demanding the pictures, threatening to sue me for all I was worth, which was not very much.”
Rutledge was summoned to a meeting in New York.
“Black Star was pretty upset with me; they wanted to control the release of them. I wasn’t on staff, so legally they couldn’t do anything to me. I was freelance.”
What Rutledge had wanted all along was to be a full-time Black Star photographer, and the flap over the Griffin photos opened the door. “One of the administrators said, ‘Don, if you’re going to continue, you’ll have to be staff, so we can be legally responsible.” Rutledge answered, “‘OK, if that’s necessary.’ Real casual-like.”
The magazines that had been clamoring over the photos lost interest, however, when they heard about the deadlock over the rights to them. Rutledge doesn’t know how much potential income he missed earning. “It had to be an enormous amount.”
Rutledge left Black Star for the Home Mission Board in 1966 and embarked on a career photographing missions. He moved to the Foreign Mission Board in 1980 and worked in 142 countries before his retirement last year.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked if I’m the Don Rutledge who was the photographer in Black Like Me.”
Countless people have testified to him about the impact the book had in shaping their attitudes about racism.
Today Rutledge makes his home in Midlothian, Va. He appreciates the strides that have been made toward racial equality. “We’ve got a lot of progress to make yet, but we’re a lot further along than we were during that time.”
Griffin died in 1980; Rutledge saw him a couple of times in the 20 years after their brief collaboration — once on a visit to Fort Worth. “Tears started running from his eyes and he grabbed me and started hugging me.”
Another time, the Baptist Public Relations Association (now Baptist Communicators Association) met in Texas. Rutledge got Griffin to address the group and waive his $3,000 fee.
“John Howard Griffin was an amazing person, and our work together is an experience I will always remember,” Rutledge said. “I was just starting on my career in photojournalism at the time, and I will always be grateful that this was a part of those early days.”
Rutledge said he had a long, enjoyable visit with Griffin’s widow, Elizabeth, and Bonazzi last year in Fort Worth.
Rutledge learned he was the only person to have seen Griffin both as a white person and as a black person.
As his memories of Black Like Me and his huge body of photographic work attest, Don Rutledge sees all people the way God sees them — as people.

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  • Tim Palmer