Alexander Murray Palmer Haley, better known as Alex Haley, was a celebrated author whose books centered around African American heritage. He was born on August 11, 1921 in Ithaca, New York to Simon and Bertha Palmer Haley. For the first few years of his life he lived in Tennessee with his mother and grandparents, while his father was at Cornell University studying agriculture. Haley always recalled his father and his accomplishments with immense pride, stating that he worked extremely hard to overcome racial and economic hurdles and achieved success despite all odds. Simon rejoined his family after finishing his studies and became a university lecturer.
Alex himself was a bright and intelligent student, who finished high school at the age of 15 and then enrolled at Alcorn State University in Mississippi. After a year, he transferred to Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina but he soon quit that as well in order to pursue a career in the Coast Guard. Because his job as a mess attendant was very boring, Alex bought a typewriter and would fill the time by writing short stories and typing letters on behalf of his fellow officers. He would often mail these stories to publishers in the United States but he mostly met with rejection. The few that got accepted, however, were enough encouragement for him to keep going.
He applied for the post of journalist and got accepted, and was soon promoted to the rank of Chief Journalist of the Coast Guard. He held this position until his retirement in 1959. Haley served for 20 years in the Coast Guard, during which time he received numerous awards and honors including the Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Korean Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal and United Nations Service Medal. He was also posthumously awarded the War Service Medal by the Republic of Korea. After retirement, he took up journalism as a freelancer and eventually became a senior editor for Reader’s Digest magazine.
Alex Haley conducted a series of interviews for Playboy magazine, starting with his first interview of the acclaimed jazz musician Miles Davis. The interview was a big success and Playboy magazine commissioned Haley to do a series of similar interviews with notable African Americans such as George Lincoln Rockwell, Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jim Brown, Johnny Carson and Quincy Jones. Haley’s interview with Malcolm X in 1960 inspired him to write his biography. He conducted more than 50 interviews with Malcolm X between 1963 till his assassination in 1965, and the result was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley”. The book was published after Malcolm’s assassination in 1965 and quickly became an international bestseller, selling millions of copies worldwide. TIME magazine rated it as one of the top 10 most influential (nonfiction) books of the 20th century.
His next project was to trace the history of his ancestors from present day to the era of slavery. He undertook extensive research for the book, travelling to Africa, England and various parts of America for research. He located the original records of the ship his ancestors had arrived in and even undertook a journey from Liberia to America in the hold of a ship, to get a genuine feeling of what his ancestors had felt when being transported as slaves. His enormous hard work paid off when his book “Roots” was published in 1976 and became a massive hit. The central character of the book was Kunta Kinte, who was in fact Haley’s ancestor and had been captured and sold as a slave. The book was based on facts but was partly fictionalized as well. It received rave reviews from prominent magazines such as The New York Times, and was soon adapted into a television series with a record breaking viewership of over 130 million people.
Alex Haley died in 1992 at the age of 70. He was married thrice and had three children. His literary honors include the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a special Pulitzer Prize in 1977.