As the world celebrated the life of Malcolm X this week, we also remembered Alex Haley; the man who brought Malcolm X’s story to life. Before he became the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Roots” in 1977, Alex Haley penned “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” where he re-introduced the famed civil rights leader to the world and introduced himself as a great writer.
Alex Haley’s fame as a writer did not begin with the “Autobiography of Malcolm X”, rather he began his career writing for Readers Digest years earlier. In maybe his most famous piece in the Digest entitled “George Haley: The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit”, Alex Haley chronicled the life of his younger brother as he became only the second African-American to attend the University of Arkansas School of Law. In any other family in America, George Haley’s accomplishments would have overshadowed others in his family, and until Alex Haley published “Roots” George’s life did. And as we mourn the recent death of George Haley, we should also celebrate the life of perhaps the most accomplished American you’ve never heard of.
Before Alex Haley became a household name, his younger brother George was already making history. As a student at Morehouse College, George would befriend classmate Martin Luther King; King and Haley would remain close until King’s death. Already a veteran of the Army Air Forces, George matriculated through Morehouse and eventually enrolled in the University Of Arkansas Law School. Prior to George’s enrollment in 1949, Silas Hunt had been the first African-American to enroll in 1948. In “George Haley: The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit”, Alex chronicled the story of how his brother made history. In an excerpt from the story, Alex outlines just how difficult young George had it:
The first day of school, he went quickly to his basement room, put his sandwich on the table, and started upstairs for class. He found himself moving through wave upon wave of white faces that all mirrored the same emotions– shock, disbelief, then choking, inarticulate rage. The lecture room was buzzing with conversation, but as he stepped through the door there was silence. He looked for his seat. It was on the side between the other students and the instructor. When the lecture began, he tried desperately to concentrate on what the professor was saying, but the hate in that room seeped into his conscience and obliterated thought.
George would go on to overcome living in the law school basement, having a bag of urine thrown at him, death threats, and even being ostracized by other African-Americans to graduate at the top of his class and become member of the prestigious Law Review.
As if helping to integrate a southern law school wasn’t enough, after graduation George joined a law firm that would be enlisted to help young Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund with the historic Brown vs. Topeka (KS) Board of Education. Though contributing to the most impactful legal case in U.S. history would be laudable, George’s quiet humility kept him from bringing up his place in history leaving many who knew him without any knowledge of his contribution to history.
After years as an advocate for equal rights, George transitioned from holding policy makers accountable to becoming a policy maker himself. By 1964, George made history yet again by becoming the first African-American elected to the Kansa State Senator.
By the time Alex was gaining national notoriety as a writer, George had already made history three times. Though George was already making Haley a household name in Kansas and Arkansas, by the 1970’s the airing of Alex’s “Roots” as a mini-series would elevate the Haley name to national notoriety. And as the world was learning about the story of Kunta Kente and the story of the Haley name, George was continuing to make his own history.
A life-long member of the Republican Party ever since it was the “Party of Lincoln”, George went on to work for six different U. S. Presidents. In 1990, George made history for a fourth time when President George H.W. Bush made him the first African-American to be appointed Chair of the Postal Rate Commission. George was not only respected by Republicans, President Clinton would later appointed George to the post of United States Ambassador to The Gambia. The Gambia became famous as the country from where his ancestor Kunte Kente was said to originate. George’s appointment to U.S. Ambassador to The Gambia was a poetic culmination to a career and life that would come full circle.
I counted Ambassador Haley as a mentor and a friend since meeting him 11 years ago at a Morehouse College Glee Club concert in Washington D.C. Our mutual love for our alma mater and for African development drew us together. I always valued the Sunday afternoons spent sitting with him in his home amongst the photos, news clippings, and priceless African artifacts that decorated his house. In this day and age terms like service, sacrifice, courage, determination, humility, and integrity are bestowed on people too easily. Ambassador Haley’s life is a living testimony to the characteristics few ever really exude.
I believe Ambassador Haley’s place in American history should be more prominent. For a man who made American history six times, Ambassador Haley never spoke of his accomplishments or the past preferring to concentrate on the future. Excited about the potential for an African-American President, Ambassador Haley shared with me that he’d voted Democrat for the first time in 2008; I’m glad he had a chance to see someone else make history for a change.