Alexander Murray Palmer Haley
August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992
Alex Haley’s Early Days
Alexander Murray Palmer Haley, the oldest of three sons (George and Julius), was born to Simon and Bertha (Palmer) Haley on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York. Six weeks after his birth, Simon and Bertha returned to Henning, Tennessee, and presented Will and Cynthia Palmer with their grandson, Alex Haley. Alex and his mother remained with the Palmers, while Simon returned to Cornell University to complete his graduate studies in agriculture. After the death of Will Palmer in 1926, Simon Haley joined his wife and family in Henning and operated the Palmer business. During this time, Haley listened to his grandmother Cynthia tell vibrant stories about their family’s ancestry. She spoke about “Kin-tay”, one of his grandfathers tracing back seven generations, whom she said was sold into slavery with other Gambian Africans in “Naplis” (Annapolis, Maryland). In 1929, Simon Haley began his teaching career, and the family moved. Two years after they relocated, Bertha Haley passed away in Normal, Alabama when Alex was ten years old.
Although Alex was considered a lax student, he graduated from high school at the age of 15. In 1937, Haley was enrolled at Elizabeth City State Teachers College, in North Carolina, which he attended for two years. At the age of 17 Alex returned home to inform his father of his withdrawal from college. Simon Haley felt that Alex needed discipline and growth and convinced his son to enlist in the military when he turned 18.
On May 24, 1939, Alex Haley began his 20-year service with the U.S. Coast Guard as a mess-boy. He then became a third class Petty Officer in the rate of Mess Attendant, one of the few enlisted designators open to African Americans at that time. It was during his service in the Pacific Theater of Operations that Haley taught himself the craft of writing stories. He talked of how the greatest enemy he and his crew faced during their long sea voyages wasn’t the Japanese but boredom. To alleviate his boredom, he wrote love letters on behalf of his shipmates to send to their wives and girlfriends. Haley then began writing short stories while working at sea, but it took eight years before small magazines began accepting some of his stories.
Haley’s stay in the Coast Guard was lengthened by the start of World War II. He received a promotion to steward and married Nannie Branch in 1941, whom he had met at a North Carolina port. Soon after Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to a cargo-supply ship in the South Pacific. Shortly after this, he was promoted from steward to signalman and from the signal bridge he looked down upon a Mail Call scene that led to a story by the same name that was first printed in the ship’s newsletter and after several shipmates sent it back in letters to the states, was picked up over a wire service and widely reprinted across the U.S.
After this, in 1945, Haley was ordered back to the States assigned to Third (New York) District public relations. He continued “learning to write” while in this position and “achieved some by-lines in tolerant military publications.” The year 1950 was momentous for Haley for two reasons. First, the admiral he served as a steward was so impressed by one of Haley’s articles that he successfully petitioned the Coast Guard to create the rating of journalist for Haley where he was named their Chief Journalist, a position created just for him. Secondly, the same year brought his first commercial sale, a story about laughable requests for help that the Coast Guard received called “They Drive You Crazy” and carried by This Week magazine.
The years that followed saw a steady increase in interest in his articles. Coronet bought the first of 15 to 20 short human- interest articles in 1952. In 1953 Yachting, Flying, and Reader’s Digest added their readership to his fans. In 1955 one of his articles, Hope Springs Eternal, appeared in the January issue of Atlantic Monthly. While it focused on his great Aunt Liz, the article mentioned his grandmother’s having “a paper tracing her family back to a freed slave”, a hint of the phenomenal family saga Haley would interpret a decade later in Roots. In 1956 he turned his eye toward writing articles of interest to blacks with an article, A New Audience for Radio, on radio stations formatted for black listeners that appeared within the February issue of Harper’s Magazine.
In 1954, he was transferred from New York to San Francisco, still writing constantly and being published sporadically. He finally retired in 1959, at the young age of 37, with 20 years of service. He, his wife and their two teen-age children immediately returned to New York for him to pursue full-time free-lance writing.
After World War II, Haley was able to petition the Coast Guard to allow him to transfer into the field of journalism, and by 1949 he had become a First Class Petty Officer in the rate of Journalist He later advanced to the rank of Chief Petty Officer and held this grade until his retirement. By 1952, the Coast Guard had created a new rating for Haley, chief journalist, and he began handling Coast Guard public relations.
Haley’s Notable Service Awards And Accomplishments
Haley’s awards and decorations from the U.S. Coast Guard include the American Defense Service Medal (with “Sea” clasp), American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal (with 1 silver and 1 bronze service star), Korean Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal and the Coast Guard Expert Marksmanship Medal. (In 1999, the United States Coast Guard honored Haley by naming a cutter the “USS Alex Haley” (WMEC-39) after him. Haley was also posthumously awarded the Korean War Service Medal ten years after his death. This award, created in 1999, did not exist during Haley’s lifetime.)
Reader’s Digest And Playboy Magazine
After retiring from the Coast Guard, in 1959, after twenty years of military service, Haley continued as a journalist, first as a writer and senior editor at Reader’s Digest—a monthly general interest family magazine. He also established the “Playboy Interview” feature, where he conversed with jazz legend Miles Davis, which appeared in the September 1962 issue. In the interview, Davis candidly spoke about his thoughts and feelings on racism and it was this interview that set the tone for what would become a significant part of the magazine.
Haley then began interviewing cultural icons, including Martin Luther King, Jr. This 1965 magazine interview with Haley was the longest interview Martin Luther King, Jr., had ever granted to any publication. Throughout the 1960s, other notable Playboy interviews by Haley include American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell. Rockwell agreed to meet with Haley only after Haley, in a phone conversation, assured him that he was not Jewish. Haley exhibited remarkable calm and professionalism, despite the handgun Rockwell kept on the table throughout the interview. Haley also interviewed Cassius Clay, who spoke about changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Other interviews include Jack Ruby’s defense attorney Melvin Belli, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jim Brown, Johnny Carson, and Quincy Jones.
One of Haley’s most famous interviews was the Malcolm X Interview (1963) for Playboy, which led to their collaboration on the activist’s autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, based on interviews conducted shortly before Malcolm’s death (and with an epilogue). Published in 1965, the book became a huge success and was later named by Time magazine as one of the ten most important nonfiction books of the 20th century. The book was translated into eight languages and sold over 8 million copies. Haley later completed a memoir of Malcolm X for Playboy six months before his death in February 1992. The memoir was published in the July 1992 issue of the magazine.
Roots: The Saga of an American Family
Pursuing the few slender clues of oral family history told him by his maternal grandmother in Henning, Tennessee, Haley spent the next twelve years traveling three continents tracking his maternal family back to a Mandingo youth, named Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped into slavery from the small village of Juffure, in The Gambia, West Africa. Haley said the most emotional moment of his life was on September 29, 1967, when he stood at the site in Annapolis, Maryland where his ancestor had arrived 200 years before. During this period, Haley became a prolific lecturer at various universities in the United States and in Great Britain and received many honorary doctor of letters degrees for his work. Haley then continued to write magazine articles, sharing what he learned about his family’s history in relation to slavery.
The book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, excerpted in Reader’s Digest in 1974 and heralded for several years, was finally published in the fall of 1976 with very wide publicity and reviews. With cover stories, book reviews, and interviews with Haley in scores of magazines and newspaper articles, the book became the number one national best seller, sold in the millions and was published as a paperback in 1977. Roots became a phenomenon. It was serialized in the New York Post and the Long Island Press. Instructional packages, lesson plans based on Roots and other books about Roots for schools, were published along with records and tapes by Haley. Roots was eventually published in 37 languages.
Haley received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1977. Four thousand deans and department heads of colleges and universities throughout the country in a survey conducted by Scholastic Magazine selected Haley as America’s foremost achiever in the literature category. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was selected in the religious category.) Later, Haley also won a Special Award for Roots in 1997 from the Pulitzer Board (Pulitzer Prize).
The publication of Roots, along with two enormously popular televised versions of it—Roots in 1977 and Roots: The Next Generations in 1979—made Haley an international celebrity and lecturer. An estimated 80 to 130 million viewers watched the last episode of Roots, generating greater interest in the novel and prompting thousands of Americans to investigate their own family genealogies. Roots emphasized that African Americans have a long history and that not all of that history is lost, as many believed. The novel and television series also provoked a national discussion about the history and legacy of racism and slavery.
In 1988, Haley conducted a promotional tour for a novella titled A Different Kind of Christmas about slave escapes in the 1850s. He also promoted a drama, Roots: The Gift, a two-hour television program shown in December 1988. This story revolved around two principal characters from Roots (Kunta Kinte and Fiddler) who are involved in a slave break for freedom on Christmas Eve.
Haley then began working on a second historical novel based on another branch of his family, traced through his grandmother Queen—the daughter of a black slave woman and her white master. He was unable to finish writing Queen: The Story of an American Family before he died, and at his request it was completed by David Stevens. Haley left behind many boxes of research notes and a 700-page outline of the story, but David says he was mainly guided by the many, long conversations he had with Alex. After it was finished by David Stevens and published as Alex Haley’s Queen (1993), it was subsequently made into a movie starring Halle Berry in the title role aired on CBS as a miniseries on February 14, 1993.
On February 10, 1992, Alex Haley died of a heart attack in Seattle. He was scheduled to speak that day at the Bangor Naval Submarine Base at Bremerton, Washington, 15 miles from Seattle. After a funeral service in Memphis, he was buried in the front yard of his grandparents’ home in Henning. Following his death, his farm in Clinton, Tennessee, was sold to Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, and still exists as a training and retreat center for youth workers. His legacy continues, the stories he shared are just as relevant today as the words he left behind: “We all suffer. If a man’s wise, he learns from it.”
Stories of America
At the time of his death, Mr. Haley was general editor of the twenty-eight books of the Stories of America series. The education of children was a cause to which he was firmly and enthusiastically committed. This series represents part of Alex Haley’s legacy to the children of America. Alex Haley, in his introduction to this series, ended with, “So read Stories of America and listen to the music of your history and witness the sights, sounds, smells, and life of your past.” ~ Alex Haley