George Haley: The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit

A look back: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley tells the story of a man who overcame prejudice to excel as one of the first black students at a Southern law school.

By Alex Haley
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine March 1963

from Reader's Digest

George Haley: The Man Who Wouldn’t QuitPhotographed by Jeffrey Salter/Redux
This story was first published in Reader’s Digest at the height of the civil rights movement, the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. It recounts events in the life of George Haley that occurred at an even earlier time in America and contains offensive language. We have retained that language in the interest of historical accuracy and to preserve the integrity and intent of the author’s original version.


 

In low tones, the dean was explaining to a prospective law student the conduct expected of him. “We have fixed up a room in the basement for you to stay in between classes. You are not to wander about the campus. Books will be sent down to you from the law library. Bring sandwiches and eat lunch in your room. Always enter and leave the university by the back route I have traced on this map.”

The dean felt no hostility toward this young man; along with the majority of the faculty and the trustees, he had approved the admission of 24-year-old George Haley to the University of Arkansas School of Law. But it was 1949, and this young Army Air Forces veteran was a Negro. The dean stressed that the key to avoiding violence in this Southern school was maximum isolation.

George was dismayed at the pattern of life laid out for him. He might have entered Harvard Law School, where he would not have had to live the life of a pariah. Yet he had chosen this!

A letter from his father had determined him. During his last semester at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he had opened the letter to read: “Segregation won’t end until we open beachheads wherever it exists. The governor of Arkansas and educational officials have decided upon a quiet tryout of university integration. You have the needed scholastic record and temperament, and I understand that Arkansas has one of the South’s best law schools. I can arrange your admission if you accept this challenge.”

George had great love and respect for his father, a college professor and pioneer in Negro education. He accepted the challenge.

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.

On the second day, he was greeted with open taunts and threats: “You, nigger, what are you doing here?” “Hey, nigger, go back to Africa.” He tried not to hear; to walk with an even pace, with dignity.

The students devised new ways to harass him. Mornings when he came to his basement room, he found obscene and threatening notes shoved under the door. The trips from the campus back to his rented room in town became a test of nerve. One afternoon, at an intersection, a car full of students slowed down and waved him across. But the moment he stepped in front of the car they gunned the engine, making him scramble back and fall to his hands and knees in the gutter. As the car sped away he heard mocking laughter and the shouted taunt, “Hey, missing link, why don’t you walk on your hind legs?”

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  • Your Comments

    • Cmanley51

      Ambassador Haley is one of the nicest men I have ever met. I am so glad I found his story.

    • Travis bowman

      This story is amazing!  Thank you for your persistence Mr. Haley!