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

His basement room was near the editorial offices of the Law Review, a publication written and edited by 12 top honor students of the senior class. He had heard of their bitterness that he had to share their toilet. One afternoon his door flew open, and he whirled around to catch in the face a paper bag of urine. After this incident, he was offered a key to the faculty toilet; he refused it. Instead, he denied himself liquids during the day and used no toilet.

George Haley: The Man Who Wouldn’t QuitCourtesy The David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, University of ArkansasHaley at 24, at law school

He began to worry that his passive acceptance of degrading treatment might be destroying him, killing something of his manhood. Wouldn’t it be better for him to hate back, to fight back? He took his problems to his father and brother in long, agonized letters. His father answered, “Always remember that they act the way they do out of fear. They are afraid that your presence at the university will somehow hurt it, and thus their own education and chance in life. Be patient with them. Give them a chance to know you and to understand that you are no threat.”

The day after this letter arrived, George found a noose dangling in the basement room.

His brother wrote, “I know it is hard, but try to remember that all our people are with you in thought and prayer. George read this with a wry smile.” He wondered what his brother would say if he knew how the town Negroes uneasily avoided him. They knew he walked the thin edge of violence, and they didn’t want to be near if an explosion occurred. Only a few gave him encouragement. A church deacon proffered a rumpled dollar bill to help with expenses, saying, “I work nights, son. Walkin’ home I see your studyin’ light.”

Despite his “studyin’ light,” George barely passed the first semester exams. His trouble was that in class he couldn’t really think; all his nerve endings were alert to the hate that surrounded him. So the second semester, using a semi-shorthand he had learned in the Army Air Forces, George laboriously recorded every word his professors said. Then at night he blotted out the day’s harassments and studied the lectures until he could almost recite them.

By the end of the year George had lost over 28 pounds, and he went into the examinations exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Somehow he finished them without collapsing, but he had flunked, he thought. He had done his best, and now he could honorably leave. Some other Negro would have to do what he failed to do, some other man stronger and smarter.

The afternoon the marks were due, he went to his basement room, dropped into the chair, and put his head on the table. There was a knock on his door and he called, “Come in!” He could hardly believe what he saw. Into the room filed four of his classmates, smiling at him. One said, “The marks were just posted and you made the highest A. We thought you’d want to know.” Then, embarrassed, they backed out of the room.

For a moment he was stunned, but then a turmoil of emotion flooded through him. Mostly he felt relief that he didn’t have to report failure to his father and friends.

When George Haley returned for his next semester at Arkansas, there was a sharp decrease in the hate mail under his door, and there was grudging respect for his scholastic accomplishments. But still, wherever he went, eyes looked at him as if he were a creature from a zoo.

One day a letter arrived: “We are having a ‘Race-Relations Sunday’ and would enjoy having you join our discussion.” It was signed by the secretary of the Westminster Presbyterian Student Foundation. His first reaction was anger. They wanted to discuss, did they? Where had all these do-gooders been all the time he’d been going through hell? Bitterly he tore up the invitation and threw it in the wastebasket. But that night he tossed restlessly.

At last he got out of bed and wrote an acceptance.

At the church, he was met by a group of young men and women. There were the too-hasty handclasps and the too-bright smiles. At last the chairman stood up to introduce George. He said, “We hope that Mr. Haley will tell us what we can do as a Christian body…”

George got to his feet and moved stonily to the podium. Those introductory words released something of a maelstrom of emotions. He forgot his carefully prepared speech. “What can you do?” he blurted out. “You can speak to me!”

Suddenly, all that had been dammed up came pouring out. He told them what it was like to be treated like an enemy in your own country; what it did to the spirit to be hounded for no crime save that of skin color; what it did to the soul to begin to believe that Christ’s teachings had no validity in this world. “I’ve begun to hate,” he confessed. “I’ve drawn on every spiritual resource I have to fight off this hatred, but I’m failing.” His eyes flooded with tears of anger, then of shame. He groped for his chair.

The silence vanished in a roar of applause and cheers. When the chairman’s gavel finally restored order, George was unanimously voted a member of the group. Thereafter he spent a part of each weekend at Westminster House, enjoying the simple pleasure of human companionship.

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

Sending Message
how we use your e-mail

Your Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus