Alex Haley – A Brief Biography (1921-1992)

Alex Haley biography
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Alex Haley. U.S. Coast Guard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Alex Haley was an American writer and journalist, best known for his popular and acclaimed novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

Haley is also known for his collaboration with Malcolm X on Malcolm’s autobiography.

Early Life

Alex Haley, born Alexander Murray Palmer Haley, was born on 11th August 1921 in Ithaca, New York, to Simon Haley and Bertha George Haley. Haley was the eldest of three sons.

His father, Simon, was a professor of agriculture at Alabama A&M University.

Although Haley was born in Ithaca, the family moved to Henning, Tennessee, where his mother had grown up. And in 1926, when Haley was 5 years old, the family again moved back to Ithaca.

Haley was enrolled at Alcorn State University, a public historically black land-grant university in Mississippi. Just a year later, he left Alcorn State University for Elizabeth City State University, which was also a public historically black university in North Carolina.

But Haley only spent a year at the college and dropped out the following year. His father thought he needed to cultivate some discipline in his life and convinced him to enlist in the military.

Life in the U.S. Coast Guard

On 24th May 1939, Alex Haley, aged 17, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard as a mess attendant, thereby marking the beginning of his 20-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard.

He was later promoted to the rate of petty officer third-class in the rating of steward, which was one of the very few ratings open to African-Americans at the time.

It was during the Pacific War that Haley began writing stories. In fact, he became so popular for his writing skills among his peers that they often paid him to write love letters to their girlfriends. Life in the Coast Guard was not all that exciting and adventurous, and Haley would later remark that the biggest enemy he and his crew encountered during their long voyages was boredom and not the Japanese.

In such an environment, Haley found writing to be the best distraction to keep him occupied, and he consciously began working on his craft.

At the end of the Second World War, Haley petitioned the Coast Guard to transfer him to the field of journalism. His petition was granted, and by 1949 he became a petty officer first-class in the rating of a journalist. Eventually, he became the chief petty officer, a rank he held until he retired from the Coast Guard in 1959.

In recognition of his talents as a writer, the rating of chief journalist was solely created for him, thereby making him the first chief journalist in the Coast Guard. His services in the Coast Guard would earn him several awards and recognitions such as American Defense Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal, Coast Guard Expert Marksmanship Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and several others.

Life After Military Service

In 1959, Alex Haley, aged 37, retired from the U.S. Coast Guard. His time in the Coast Guard had helped him to find the career he wished to pursue after the military, and he decided to become a journalist and a writer.

Back from the military now, Haley’s experience as a journalist in the Coast Guard helped him to get a position as senior editor for Reader’s Digest magazine. In one of his articles for Reader’s Digest, he wrote about his brother George’s struggle to succeed as one of the first African-Americans students at a law school in the South.

But his time at Reader’s Digest was short-lived, and he soon became a journalist for Playboy magazine, which was where he conducted his very first interview. Haley’s interviews with prominent personalities became a regular and significant feature of the magazine.

During the 1960s, Haley interviewed several famous and influential figures of the time such as Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones, Jim Brown, George Lincoln Rockwell, Johnny Carson, Melvin Belli, etc.

In these interviews, Haley brought out the candid and personal side of these personalities, prompting them to share their personal thoughts and opinions on important subject matters of the time such as racism.

Miles Davis shared his thoughts and feelings about racism in America, and Muhammad Ali spoke about why he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. And his interview with Martin Luther King Jr. was the longest interview King ever granted to any publication.

Perhaps his most interesting interview was with American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell, who only agreed to do the interview with Haley after receiving assurance that Haley was not Jewish. It is said that Rockwell kept a handgun on the table throughout the interview.

Haley’s interview with Rockwell would go on to be recreated in the 1979 television miniseries Roots: The Next Generation, with Marlon Brando as Rockwell and James Earl Jones as Haley.

Collaboration with Malcolm X

Alex Haley first met Malcolm X in 1959, when Haley was working for Reader’s Digest and wrote an article on the Nation of Islam. Then the two met again when Haley interviewed Malcolm for Playboy in 1962.

In 1963, Doubleday Publishing Company asked Haley to write a book on Malcolm’s life. Haley approached Malcolm with the idea of an autobiography, which caught Malcolm by surprise. Uncertain of what to answer, Malcolm asked the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, for permission, and Elijah Muhammad agreed.

After receiving permission to proceed with the book, Haley and Malcolm began meeting for two to three-hour interview sessions at Haley’s studio in Greenwich Village, New York City in early 1963. However, Malcolm was still suspicious and skeptical of Halye’ because of his service in the military, his middle-class status, and his Christian beliefs.

The initial interviews conducted between the two proved frustrating for Haley due to Malcolm’s tendency to speak about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, rather than discuss his own life. And Haley’s frequent reminders that the book was supposed to be about Malcolm and his life and not Elijah and the Nation of Islam angered Malcolm.

This difficulty was finally overcome when, after several interviews, Haley asked Malcolm about his mother. This question shifted the focus of the interview and compelled Malcolm to recount his life story.

The autobiography is based on more than fifty in-depth interviews conducted between 1963 and Malcolm’s assassination in 1965. Although Haley came in as the ghostwriter, their collaboration was not all smooth and easy. The editing, revising, and composing of the book was a constant power struggle between Haley and Malcolm, with both sometimes having competing ideas about how the book should turn out. However, Haley would later admit that he deferred to Malcolm’s specific choice of words and, in general, Malcolm controlled the overall language and composition of the book.

But, on the other hand, Malcolm assented to Haley’s literary choices and narrative style. The book is written like a spiritual conversion narrative that touches upon Malcolm’s philosophy of black pride, pan-Africanism, and black nationalism. And when Malcolm departed from the Nation of Islam during the period the book was being written, Haley convinced Malcolm to go with a suspense and drama style, rather than rewriting earlier chapters as a polemic against the Nation of Islam that Malcolm had rejected.

Although Haley was only thought to be a ghostwriter who wrote the book verbatim as dictated by Malcolm, scholars now regard him as being more than just a ghostwriter. Haley was an essential collaborator who muted his authorial voice to give readers the impression that Malcolm was speaking directly to them.

Perhaps it is better to refer to Haley as the co-author of the book, rather than just the ghostwriter.

The autobiography was completed and published in October 1965, nine months after Malcolm was assassinated. The book was well-received by critics and readers alike and became an instant bestseller, going on to sell millions of copies.

Upon its publication, The New York Times called it a brilliant, painful, and important book. In 1967, historian John William Ward predicted that the book would go on to become a classic among American autobiographies. And in 1998, Time declared it one of the most influential non-fiction books of the 20th century and required reading.

Malcolm’s autobiography has gone on to influence subsequent generations of readers since its publication, becoming one of the most widely read and influential books among young people of all racial backgrounds during the mid to late 1960s. The massive literary and cultural impact of the book is credited to have had an impact on the development of the Black Art Movement as well.

Roots: The Saga of an American Family

Malcolm’s autobiography was the first book Alex Haley worked on and published. The tremendous success of the book established Haley as a reputable writer, even though the full extent of his contribution to the book was not known yet.

In 1973, he wrote his first and only screenplay titled Super Fly T.N.T directed by and starring Ron O’Neal. Simultaneously, Haley was also working on a novel based on his family’s history going back to the kidnapping of his ancestor from West Africa to be sold into slavery.

The novel narrates the story of Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped in The Gambia in 1767 at the age of 17, chained, and transported to the Province of Maryland in America to be sold as a slave. From then on, the novel follows Kinte’s life and the lives of his descendants in America down to Haley himself.

The research involved in writing the novel was extensive, time-consuming, and complex. Haley went to great lengths to gain as much accurate information as possible regarding his family history. The research for the novel was done over a period of 12 years, with Haley traveling to his ancestral village of Juffure in The Gambia where Kunta Kinte grew up, and listening to a tribal historian, known as a griot, narrate the story of Kinte’s capture. Haley also traced the records of the ship, Lord Ligonier, which carried his ancestor to Annapolis in Maryland, America.

Haley even visited and stood at the site in Annapolis, where his ancestor arrived in chains 200 years before. Haley would later describe this moment as the most emotional moment of his life.

Upon its publication in 1976, the novel became an instant critical and commercial success. Although Haley described the book as a work of fiction, the book was often categorized and sold as a non-fiction work.

The novel debuted at number five on The New York Times Best Seller List, quickly rising to the number one spot where it spent 22 weeks.

The novel spent a total of 46 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List. In January 1977, the television adaptation of the novel was aired to a great response, attracting over 130 million viewers across America. The success of the television series further helped to increase book sales. Within the first seven months of its release, the novel sold over 15 million hardcover copies.

The massive success of the novel and the popularity of the television series caused a cultural sensation in America and generated interest in African-American genealogy and an appreciation for African-American history.

In 1977, Alex Haley won a Special Pulitzer Prize for the novel and the television series also received several awards. The last seven chapters of the novel were also adapted into a television miniseries titled Roots: The Next Generation in 1979.

Roots was a cultural and publishing sensation in America, shooting Haley up to literary superstardom almost immediately. The novel would go on to influence subsequent generations of writers and is regarded as one of the most important literary works in African-American and American literature.


Although Haley’s novel was a massive success on all fronts, it also received a lot of criticism and attracted a lot of controversies, mainly regarding the accuracy of its genealogy and plagiarism.

Haley’s research and the details relating to genealogy in the book have been disputed and criticized by genealogists over the years. His sources have also been questioned, with scholars coming to the conclusion that none of the written records in North Carolina and Virginia concur with the novel’s story until after the Civil War, thereby indicating that most likely Haley’s true genealogy differed from the one described in the novel. Even the griot whom Haley had spoken to in The Gambia was believed to not have been a real griot.

Alex Haley also faced two lawsuits, one for copyright infringement and the other for plagiarism. The lawsuits were brought on by two different writers, Harold Courlander and Margaret Walker. However, Walker’s suit was dismissed while Courlander’s suit was successful.

Courlander’s novel, The African, follows an identical story of an African boy who is captured by slave traders and is taken to America as a slave. Haley even admitted to adding some of the passages from Courlander’s novel into Roots.

The suit was ultimately settled out of court in 1978 with Haley paying Courlander $650,000.

Final Years, Death, and Legacy

Post the publication and success of his first novel, Alex Haley began working on a second historical novel, which was based on another branch of his family traced through his Grandmother, Queen, who was the daughter of a white master and his black slave woman.

In 1977, Haley was given the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement. The same year, he also received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for the exhaustive research and literary skill employed in the writing of Roots.

In the early 1980s, he began working with the Walt Disney Company in order to develop an Equatorial Africa pavilion for its Epcot Center theme park. However, although the plan and concept of the pavilion were prepared, the pavilion was never built due to financial and political reasons.

Haley was also involved in creating the television drama series Palmerstown, USA in the early 1980s.

In the last years of his life, Haley lived on his small farm in Clinton, Tennessee.

On 10th February 1992, Alex Haley, aged 70, died of a heart attack in Seattle, Washington, leaving his second novel unfinished. He was interred beside his childhood home in Henning, Tennessee.

In 1993, his second novel was finished by Australian writer David Stevens and published as Alex Haley’s Queen, or Queen: The Story of an American Family. The same year, the novel was adapted into a television miniseries.

In 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard dedicated the cutter USS Edenton to Haley and recommissioned it as USCGC Alex Haley. The Coast Guard named the food-service building at their training center in Petaluma, California, Haley Hall in his honor, and also gives out an annual award called the Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award in honor of Haley being the first ever chief journalist in the Coast Guard. The award is given to individual photographers and writers who have had articles or photographs communicating the Coast Guard story published in internal newsletters or external publications.

And in 2002, Haley was posthumously awarded the Korean War Service Medal by the Republic of Korea.

Today, Roots is a classic of African-American and American literature, and Alex Haley is widely regarded as one of the most significant and influential American writers, who helped to raise public awareness of African-American history.