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

School was drawing to a close, and he felt a deep satisfaction in having accomplished most of his goals. But then the old specter rose again. Each year, distinguished alumni returned for a faculty banquet to salute the Law Review staff. With a sinking feeling, George dreaded what would happen. And that evening when George entered the hotel banquet hall, the reaction was just what he feared. The moment the alumni saw him, a pall fell on the room.

George felt sick. The food passed his lips untasted. It came time for speeches. The law school dean, Robert A. Leflar, welcomed the alumni and introduced the student editors, one at a time. There seemed an eternity of names, and George felt a frozen smile on his face.

Dean Leflar said, “The next young man demands, and receives, as much if not more respect than any other person in our law school.”

George Haley: The Man Who Wouldn’t QuitCourtesy The David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, University of ArkansasGeorge with big brother Alex

Eleven chairs scraped back, and 11 men stood up. They were the Law Review editors, and they were looking at George and applauding vigorously. Then the faculty stood up and added cheers to the applause. Finally the old grads got up, the judges, lawyers and politicians from the Deep South, and the ovation became thunderous. “Speech! Speech!” they shouted. George Haley pushed himself to his feet. He could say no word for he was unashamedly crying. But that was kind of a speech too.

Today, ten years later, George is a respected lawyer in Kansas City, Kansas. He has been deputy city attorney since 1955. He is a steward in his church, has helped found a number of Negro business firms, and is vice president of the state Young Republicans.

Dozens of old schoolmates are now George’s close friends, but perhaps the most touching acceptance of him as a man came a few years ago when he received a telephone call from Miller Williams, who had sat with him in the cafeteria. Williams, now an instructor of English at Louisiana State University, called to announce the birth of a daughter. “Lucy and I were wondering,” he said, “whether you’d care to be her godfather?”

This simple request made forever real the love and respect between two people. George knew that the long struggle and pain had been worthwhile. He knew, too, that his father had been right in saying, “Be patient with them. Give them a chance to know you.”

I know it too. For I am George’s brother.

Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Roots, began as a Reader’s Digest assignment. A contributor to the magazine for nearly 40 years, he died in 1992 at age 70.

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