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.
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.
[pullquote] The hate in that room seeped into his conscience and obliterated thought. [/pullquote]
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?”
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.
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.”
[pullquote] Always remember that they act the way they do out of fear. [/pullquote]
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!”
[pullquote] “I’ve drawn on every spiritual resource I have to fight off this hatred, but I’m failing.” [/pullquote]
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.