Alex Haley was born Alexander Murray Palmer Haley on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York. At the time of his birth, Haley’s father, Simon Haley, a World War I veteran, was a graduate student in agriculture at Cornell University, and his mother, Bertha Palmer Haley, was a teacher. For the first five years of his life, Haley lived with his mother and grandparents in Henning, Tennessee, while his father finished his studies. When Simon Haley completed his degree, he joined the family in Tennessee and taught as a professor of agriculture at various southern universities. Alex Haley was always remarkably proud of his father, whom he said had overcome the immense obstacles of racism to achieve high levels of success and provide better opportunities for his children. An exceptionally bright child and gifted student, Haley graduated from high school at the age of 15 and enrolled at Alcorn A&M College (Alcorn State University) in Mississippi, where he says he “was easily the most undistinguished freshman.” After one year at Alcorn, he transferred to Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina.
In 1939, at the age of 17, Haley quit school to enlist in the Coast Guard. Although he enlisted as a seaman, he quickly became a third class petty officer in the inglorious rate of mess attendant. To relieve his boredom while on ship, Haley bought a portable typewriter and typed out love letters for his less articulate friends. He also wrote short stories and articles and sent them to magazines and publishers back in the United States. Although he received mostly rejection letters in return, a handful of his stories were published, encouraging Haley to keep writing. At the conclusion of World War II, the Coast Guard permitted Haley to transfer into the field of journalism, and by 1949 he had achieved the rank of first class petty officer in the rate of journalist. Haley was soon promoted to chief journalist of the Coast Guard, a rank he held until his retirement in 1959, after 20 years of service. A highly decorated veteran, Haley has received the American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy. A Coast Guard Cutter was also named in Haley’s honor: the USCGC Alex Haley.
Upon retiring from the Coast Guard in 1959, Haley set out to make it as a freelance writer. Although he published many articles during these years, the pay was barely enough to make ends meet. Haley recalls working 16-hour days for about $2,000 a year, surviving on nothing but canned sardines for weeks at a time. Then, in 1962, Haley got his big break when Playboy magazine assigned him to conduct an interview with the famous trumpeter Miles Davis. The interview was such a success that the magazine contracted Haley to do a series of interviews with prominent African-Americans. Known as “The Playboy Interviews,” Haley interviewed such prominent figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones and Malcolm X. After concluding his 1963 interview with Malcolm X, Haley asked the civil rights leader if he could write a book on his life. The result, two years later, was The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. A seminal book of the civil rights movement as well as an international bestseller, the book memorialized for eternity the life of Malcolm X while transforming Haley, his collaborator, into a celebrated writer.
In the aftermath of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, freelance writing offers for Haley began pouring in, and he could have easily lived out his lifelong dream of being a successful independent writer. Instead, Haley embarked on a hugely ambitious new project to trace and retell the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, and then their rise from slavery to freedom. During a decade of research on three continents, Haley examined slave ship records at archives in the United States and England and traveled to Gambia, the home of his ancestors in West Africa. In his ancestral village of Juffure, Haley listened to a tribal historian recount how Kunta Kinte, Haley’s ancestor and the protagonist of his book, was captured and sold into slavery. Still, despite his meticulous research, Haley often despaired that he could never recapture the true spirit of his ancestors. He once recalled, “I asked myself, what right had I to be sitting in a carpeted high-rise apartment writing about what it was like in the hold of a slave ship?” In an attempt to answer this question, he booked passage on a ship from Liberia to America and spent his nights lying on a board in the hold of the ship in nothing but his underwear. When Haley finally published Roots in 1976—part fictionalized novel, part richly detailed historical account—the book caused a national sensation. A review in The New York Times stated, “No other novelist or historian has provided such a shattering, human view of slavery,” and the book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 1977, ABC adapted Roots into a television miniseries that attracted a record-shattering 130 million viewers. Thirty-seven American cities declared January 23-30, the week the program aired, “Roots Week.”
Haley’s later works include A Different Kind of Christmas (1988) and Queen, another historical novel based on a different branch of his family, published posthumously in 1993. Haley died of a heart attack on February 10, 1992, at the age of 70. Today, Haley is credited with inspiring a nationwide interest in genealogy and contributed to the easing of racial tensions in America. Time magazine called The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.