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

A slight thaw also began to take place at the university. George’s classmates gingerly began moments of shoptalk with him, discussing cases. One day he overheard a group discussing a legal point, and one of them said, “Let’s go down and ask Haley in the Noose Room.” He knew only a moment of indignation— then he smiled! It was an important change.

Toward the end of his second year a senior asked him, with elaborate casualness, why he didn’t write some articles for the Law Review. It was traditional that only the best students received such invitations, and he felt himself flushing with pride.

It was only after he returned to school for the third and final year that he decided to go to the cafeteria. He didn’t really want to go. In this last year he longed to relax, to let down his guard. But he was in this school for more than an education.

George Haley: The Man Who Wouldn’t QuitCourtesy The David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, University of ArkansasHaley with his grandmother, Cynthia Palmer

He went and stood in the cafeteria line. The other students moved away from him in both directions so that he moved in his own private air space. His tray was almost loaded when three hulking students ahead shouted, “Want to eat with us, nigger?”

They jostled him, knocking his tray to the floor with a clatter of breaking dishes. As George stooped to retrieve it, his eyes blazed up at his tormentors and for the first time he shouted back. “You’re adults!” he said. “Grow up!” They shrank from him in mock terror.

Shaking, George replaced the dumped food and made his way over to a vacant table. He bent his head over the crockery. Suddenly, a balding student stopped beside him with his tray and drawled, “My name is Miller Williams. Mind if I sit here?” George nodded. Now the two of them were the center of all eyes. Now the taunts were directed at the white student, the words “nigger lover.”

Miller Williams was hardly that. “I was born in Hoxie, Arkansas,” he said, “and I have spent all my life in the South. But what’s happening here just isn’t right, and I’m taking my stand with you.”

Later that day, Williams brought several students to George’s room for a bull session, and they laid it on the line. “Don’t all you niggers carry knives?” George emptied his pockets‚ no knife. “How often do you bathe?” Every day, George told him. “Don’t most of you lust after white girls?” George showed him snapshots of a pretty Negro girl he was dating in his hometown.

Following this session, he wrote his brother: “Improving race relations is at least 50 percent a matter of simple communication. Now that I’m able to talk to a few whites, I realize what terrible beliefs cause that prejudice. I can see the emotional struggle they are going through just to see me as an equal human being.”

Increasingly the last year became a time of triumph, not only for George but for white students who were able to discard their own preconceptions. When a student sidled up to him and said, “I wrote you a letter I’m sorry for,” George stuck out his hand and the student shook it. When another silently offered him a cigarette, George, who didn’t smoke, puffed away, knowing it was far more than a gesture.

He was named to the Law Review staff, and his writing won an award from the Arkansas Law Review Corp. His winning paper represented the university in a national competition. The faculty chose him as a moot-court defense attorney, and his Law Review colleagues picked him as comments editor—the man entrusted with the selection of articles to print.

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