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Alex Haley

By The Gale Group – The author of the widely acclaimed novel Roots was born in Ithaca, New York on August 11, 1921, and reared in Henning, Tennessee. The oldest of three sons of a college professor father and a mother who taught grade school, Haley graduated from high school at fifteen and attended college for two years before enlisting in the United States Coast Guard as a messboy in 1939.

A voracious reader, Haley began writing short stories while working at sea, but it took eight years before small magazines began accepting some of his stories. By 1952, the Coast Guard had created a new rating for Haley, chief journalist, and he began handling United States Coast Guard public relations. In 1959, after 20 years of military service, he retired from the Coast Guard and launched a new career as a freelance writer. He eventually became an assignment writer for Reader's Digest and moved on to Playboy where he initiated the "Playboy Interviews" feature.

One of the personalities Haley interviewed was Malcolm X -- an interview that inspired Haley's first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Translated into eight languages, the book has sold more than 6 million copies. Pursuing the few slender clues of oral family history told him by his maternal grandmother in Tennessee, Haley spent the next 12 years traveling three continents tracking his maternal family back to a Mandingo youth, named Kunta Kinte, who was kidnaped into slavery from the small village of Juffure, in The Gambia, West Africa. During this period, he lectured extensively in the United States and in Great Britain on his discoveries about his family in Africa, and wrote many magazine articles on his research in the 1960s and the 1970s. He received several honorary doctor of letters degrees for his work.

The book Roots, 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. In January 1977, ABC-TV produced a 12-hour series based on the book, which set records for the number of viewers. With cover stories, book reviews, and interviews with Haley in scores of magazines and m any 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.

Haley's book stimulated interest in Africa and in black genealogy. The United States Senate passed a resolution paying tribute to Haley and comparing Roots to Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1850s. The book received m any awards, including the National Book Award for 1976 special citation of merit in history and a special Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for making an important contribution to the literature of slavery. Roots was not without its critics, however. A 1977 lawsuit brought by Margaret Walker charged that Roots plagiarized her novel Jubilee. Another author, Harold Courlander also filed a suit charging that Roots plagiarized his novel The African. Courlander received a settlement after several passages in Roots were found to be almost verbatim from The African. Haley claimed that researchers helping him had given him this material without citing the source.

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.) The ABC-TV network presented another series, Roots: The Next Generation, in February 1979 (also written by Haley). Roots had sold almost five million copies by December 1978 and had been reprinted in 23 languages.

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 who are involved in a slave break for freedom on Christmas Eve.

Haley died February 10, 1992, of a heart attack.

Source: The African American Almanac, 7th ed., Gale, 1997.

Read Scott Ross's interview with Alex Haley

Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.

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