Alex Haley
Author and former U.S. Coast Guard member Alex Haley shows then President George H. Bush the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree he was awarded during graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. (Barry Thumma/AP/Shutterstock)

Black History Trailblazers of the 1970s: Alex Haley, The Author

In our ongoing celebration of Black History Month, we look back at some of the leaders, icons and pop culture juggernauts that helped to bring diversity, equity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of the American landscape — like these men and women who left their indelible mark on the 1970s. 

 

With his ground-breaking novel Roots — and the blockbuster TV series that followed — Coast Guard official turned novelist Alexander Murray Palmer Haley sparked a nationwide resurgence in genealogy while simultaneously shining a brilliant spotlight on the horrors of slavery. It was also through Haley’s unflinching work that many white readers for the first time ever learned of the unimaginable hardships Black American families were forced to endure and overcome in the pre-Civil War South as part of their ongoing quest for freedom and dignity.

The early years of Alex Haley’s life were a tumultuous period. Born on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York, to Simon and Bertha Haley, he was the eldest of three sons. Six weeks after he was born, Alex and his mother moved to Henning, Tennessee, to live with her parents while his father Simon went back to Cornell University to complete his graduate studies in agriculture.

Sadly, Haley’s grandfather Will Palmer soon passed away and Simon rejoined his family in Henning to run the family business. The Haley’s family union would also be unfortunately short lived; his mother Bertha died just two years later, leaving Simon a single parent of three young children. Over time, Simon began dating one of his colleagues (Zeona Hatcher) at the school he had been teaching at and the two eventually married.

These tragic and massive changes in Haley’s life had a huge impact on the young boy and he dealt with them, in part, by becoming incredibly close to his maternal grandmother, Cynthia Palmer. She was a vibrant and colorful woman, full of love and life and incredibly interested in the history of both her own family and of the families of those around her. As Haley recounted years later, evenings in his grandmother’s house always ended the same way — the family would eat together and then, unless there was “local priority gossip” to discuss, everyone would chat about their long cumulative family history. This included not just details of family members and their lives but also deeply personal and emotional stories that had been passed down through the generations.

Haley listened to these tales intently, fascinated by his family’s past and storing away many of the nuggets and foundations of his family lineage that would later drive his epic storytelling.

At the age of seventeen, with World War II raging across the glove, Haley made the life changing decision to enlist with the Coast Guard as a steward or “mess boy” as they were known at the time. 

The first ship he was assigned to was the U.S.S. Murzin, a cargo-ammunition vessel stationed in the Southwest Pacific. However, there would be many more ships to follow. Haley spent the next two decades working for the Coast Guard, serving in varied roles. And in the evenings, to pass his time at sea, he often wrote — journal entries, stories from his past, even letters his fellow Coast Guard crew would pay him to complete when they were having trouble figuring out what they wanted to say to girlfriends or family members back home. He honed his skill and craft over the time, becoming increasingly enamored with the world of storytelling he had entered. 

But as with everything, eventually Haley’s time at sea had to come to an end. With twenty years of service with the Coast Guard under his belt, Haley decided it was time for him to retire from military service. He had risen from mess boy to the very important rank of Coast Guard Chief Journalist, all at the age of just 37.

With military life now behind him, Haley decided to stick with what he loved, and he set out to become a full-time professional writer and journalist. His career began with some assignments from Reader’s Digest magazine and before long he also began placing pieces he had written into Playboy magazine. His editors at Playboy liked the work he was doing and gave him even more to do, including an assignment to profile up-and-coming Civil Rights advocate Malcolm X. 

Upon their first meeting, Haley and his subject struck up an immediate friendship. The pair became so close, in fact, that Malcolm eventually asked Haley to help him document the story of his life. Following dozens of interviews between the two, Haley crafted The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book was released in 1965 and became an immediate best-seller, moving millions of copies.

With that hugely popular and widely acclaimed autobiography on his resume, Haley was free to focus on his next passion project. The story he chose was Roots — a fictionalized version of his own search for his ancestral past, inspired in large part by the stories of his family history he heard from his grandmother in his youth.

Haley traveled extensively while conducting research for the book. He visited the African village of Juffure in Gambia. He spent time on a ship like the vessels that carried slaves to the Americas, even spending long chunks of time in the hold to experience the feelings his ancestors might have felt. And he visited countless archives, libraries and research repositories in an effort to collect even more data on the period and what it was like for those who were living through it.

Although Kunta Kinte and the other now beloved characters in the book Haley was creating were fictional, he called his writing “faction,” a highly detailed combination of fact and fiction.

After more than a decade of exhaustive genealogical research and study, Haley finally completed his story and Roots: The Saga of an American Family was officially published in 1976. The book quickly became an unprecedented literary sensation, selling more than six million copies and eventually being published in over 30 languages. In addition to its immense critical and popular acclaim, Haley was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for literature for his work. The novel even spent 46 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, including 22 weeks at No.1.

Despite that already immense success, Haley wanted to share the story he had created to an even broader audience, so he sold the rights of his story to ABC so they could make a miniseries from his tale — a decision that would change the face of TV in America forever.

When “Roots” aired in January of 1977, the miniseries drew over 130 million viewers, a record at the time for highest viewership ever for a broadcast program. A true cultural milestone, Time magazine reported that restaurant and shop sales showed marked declines while the program was on the air (everybody wanted to be at home watching) and bars could only keep patrons on site if they switched their TVs to the program to see it unfold.

Following the success of “Roots,” ABC aired the sequel miniseries “Roots: The Next Generations,” in 1979, again to massive success. Haley only released two additional works in the years that followed — A Different Kind of Christmas (1988) and Alex Haley’s Queen: The Story of an American Family, which he was still working on at the time of his death in 1992. However, the legacy he created with his most acclaimed novel and the characters that live within the story carry on in the pop culture zeitgeist to this day.

To honor Haley and the work he did throughout his career, in the years following his death, the State of Tennessee bought Haley’s childhood home, the “Palmer House” and turned it into a national historic site. Located in the small town of Henning, the site draws thousands of visitors annually, giving individuals the chance to learn more about Haley’s remarkable life and work while also paying respect to the incredible wordsmith at his final resting place.

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