4 A Formidable Opponent
Harold Courlander would prove to be a formidable opponent. With a passion for African culture, Courlander, a Caucasian, had written more than twenty books over a thirty-year period. Like Walker, he was popular with colleagues within the field but hardly a mainstream name. Given his quiet persona and commitment to the discipline, it seemed that fame was never his intention. The African, published in 1967, had been his biggest success. It was about a West African-born young man taken from his village by white Europeans and sent overseas to live as a slave in the United States. By Courlander’s standards, the book sold well. A decade after its initial release, Courlander’s royalties from it totaled about $14,000 (equivalent today to $50,000).
Like tens of millions of other Americans, Courlander had watched the Roots TV miniseries. He found it an entertaining but a very inaccurate portrayal. In response to the Roots phenomenon and the public’s growing appetite for all things African, he was invited by the Smithsonian Institution to serve on a discussion panel. To prepare, Courlander thought it was best to read the book that had ignited the craze. Immediately, he began to notice similarities with his own book—the look and feel of the characters, the mood and the overall plot.
After further investigation, Courlander was convinced that he had a case. He was aware of the potential implications—as a white man, would he be viewed as a racist? Or, like Walker, would he seem just another envious author? He was familiar with Ottaway’s attempt to question Haley’s research methods. An executive in the book trade advised Courlander that he was “up against something incalculably great in force. Were Roots to be discounted, let alone disproved, the presumed threat to blacks in America would be tangible, enormous.”
Whether it was a sense of justice or his age, Courlander, seventy, decided to take a stand no matter the consequences. He passed on his findings to the nation’s two most influential daily newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times. He hoped for an immediate response but there was none, at least not until Walker’s suit hit the papers. In April 1977, when the Washington Post published a piece on Courlander and the increasing scrutiny of Roots,Haley concluded that it was “open season” on him. He insisted he was unfamiliar with The African. Courlander claimed that Alex Haley was not entirely truthful.
Initially, Courlander had provided a short list of examples, hardly enough to warrant a lawsuit. But soon, he and his legal team discovered more, a lot more. Over eighty passages could be cited as borderline or outright plagiarism. After the allegations were made and reported by the New York Times on May 24, Harold Courlander filed suit in New York against Alex Haley and Doubleday as well as Reader’s Digest, which had published several excerpts (and provided financial assistance for the research) prior to the book’s release. He asked for “more than half the profits of Roots,” an estimated $2.5 million ($10 million in today’s dollars) on hard-copy sales alone.
The case was far from clear-cut. Since both books had the same chronology and focused on similar events, it was possible that Haley had used similar primary sources (i.e., a memoir, a diary or ship’s log), information that fell under public domain. Courlander was aware of the possibility, even admitting that his own work might have derived from the same documentation, but that would have to be determined.
By late spring 1977, Haley was involved in three lawsuits: the one he had filed against his publisher, and the ones leveled against him by Walker and Courlander. Haley did his best to downplay their importance. The public still adored him. The trials were hardly top news stories, but they weighed on Haley’s mind and he desperately needed a distraction.
Fortunately, the state of Tennessee was planning to honor the return of their “most illustrious son.” Government officials and business leaders arranged a three-day statewide celebration in late May. Various cities, big and small, would host rallies, lectures, and dinners honoring the man who, according to Southern author and journalist John Egerton, “may be the nearest thing Tennessee has had to a national hero since Sergeant Alvin York returned from World War I.” The three-day festivities had been organized to revitalize the state’s economy, reignite pride in its citizenry, and improve race relations with African Americans. Haley’s hometown was first on the itinerary.
Henning, located fifty miles north of Memphis, had changed little since 1939, the year seventeen-year-old Haley went off to the coast guard and stopped coming to his grandmother’s home for annual summer vacations. The town’s population was older. Many shops and banks had closed. Most blacks had left, although there were still about a hundred in a town of eight hundred people. The train on which Haley’s parents, Simon (a graduate student at Cornell University) and Bertha, had ridden home years before no longer made a stop. The last Haley family member to reside in Henning was Alex’s maternal grandmother, Cynthia Palmer, who had passed away more than thirty years prior.
The town was not an ideal spot for the long weekend’s kickoff point. Many shops on Main Street were boarded up and those that were not were on the brink. The seventy-year-old white mayor, who also served as the town’s “lone policeman and judge,” publicly referred to African Americans as “niggers.” He and everyone else just wanted to be left alone. Thus far, the few curious tourists who had arrived early found a town devoid of souvenirs or hoopla. The town’s welcoming sign was for retired Major League Baseball outfielder and one-time All Star, Jim Hickman. Hickman, who was white and grew up in Henning, had returned to work as a farmer.
Still, a small contingent of the town’s black and liberal white residents were determined to honor the author. These supporters had envisioned Henning as the next Plains (President Jimmy Carter’s hometown in Georgia). Carter’s small farming community had experienced a surge in tourism once their favorite son rose to the nation’s highest office. But unlike Carter, Haley had not maintained a residence in his hometown. Fred Montgomery, a childhood friend of the author and the only black member of the town council, worked closely with state officials to organize the day’s festivities, reaching out to local businesses for donations and to residents who were willing to volunteer. People’s Bank, the town’s sole financial institution, distributed a three-panel pamphlet with the headline splashed on the front page, “A Town on the Upswing,” featuring caricatures of both Hickman and Haley. Shops along Main Street began ordering key chains inscribed with “Roots” and “Alex Haley.” An eighty-two-year-old African American woman who attended the same church as Alex’s family called the impending celebration the “biggest day Henning has ever had.”
But resistance persisted from the town’s more conservative residents. The mayor advocated a celebration for Jim Hickman, not Haley. Fred Montgomery was undeterred. Active in his church as well as his town, he was often seen as the representative for the black voice in Henning, or as an elderly white woman put it, “the number one colored man in this town.” As the event drew closer to its big day, he began receiving threatening phone calls.
On the eve of Tennessee’s statewide “Alex Haley Weekend,” the police set up alternative traffic routes to Henning to accommodate the expected ten thousand visitors. Local supporters had done their best to beautify the small town; buildings had been painted and the church where Haley’s family had gone, as well as the African American cemetery, had gotten makeovers. The house in which he had spent his childhood boasted a welcoming sign, “Henning is the home of Alex Haley.”
As the motorcade neared, a news helicopter hovered. Other media began setting up their equipment. Main Street was taken over by orange traffic cones to allow the author, the governor, and the rest of the entourage to make their grand entrance. They were on a tight schedule—something Haley was used to. The band began marching down Main Street with the guest of honor behind it.
Despite fears of racial unrest, the day went without incident. Haley spoke, shook hands, and then was “whisked away.” The long-awaited homecoming lasted only four hours. Before the locals could take it all in, he was gone. One angry resident complained she’d hardly even gotten a look at him. “They rushed him in and rushed him out, pushed the poor man from one place to another. I think the politicians have got hold of this thing, and they’re milking it for all it’s worth.”
In the end, there was no renewed economic vitality. The ten thousand anticipated visitors didn’t show up; official estimates were closer to one thousand.
The remainder of the three-day, six-city celebration garnered mixed results. A city plagued with a racist past, Memphis’s turnout was even more anemic. The city’s mayor remained seated behind his office desk for the duration of his brief meeting with Haley. Few showed up at the paltry reception. It wasn’t until Haley flew to Knoxville that he was welcomed with open arms. He found a similar welcome in Nashville, speaking before a crowd of ten thousand at Tennessee State University. “Young mothers,” a reporter observed, “helped their infant children to get a glimpse of him; and young fathers pointed him out to their sons as he walked by.” The wife of a college president, having given her husband photographs of the author, reminded him that if he “did not get those pictures autographed by Mr. Haley, he had better not come home!”
By the end of May, Haley was off to upstate New York to speak at the commencement ceremony at Hamilton College where he had once taught. “Haley Comes Back to Hamilton Roots,” read the headline of the local newspaper. The author had fond memories of the small liberal arts school in Clinton, New York. It had offered him an opportunity to escape the fast-paced New York City lifestyle following his successful publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Teaching at the college had provided him a steady job, something he hadn’t experienced since his service in the US Coast Guard. An adjunct professor, he had been the school’s most popular teacher. Stories of Malcolm X’s visits to Haley’s Greenwich Village basement apartment, the author’s time at Playboy, and tales of researching his family’s history were all soaked up by his predominantly white, upper-class students. As the only African American instructor on campus, he was the ideal candidate to serve as the faculty advisor for the newly formed Black and Puerto Rican Student Union. The most memorable moment of his tenure at Hamilton was when he brought in a Playboy bunny, who was a pre-med student, for a Q&A session. Haley’s colleagues did not appreciate his unorthodox teaching methods. He never gave tests, rarely took attendance, and often missed class without notice.
Returning to Hamilton, Haley was no longer the hip black man walking around campus with a leather briefcase. Nor was it possible for him to stroll peacefully around the college or visit his favorite doughnut shop in town without being stopped for an autograph. Ebou Manga, the African student who had accompanied Haley on his first trip to Gambia, was astonished by the attention lavished upon the author. Haley seemed used to it.
On a beautiful, sunny afternoon, the commencement ceremony on the campus green was one of the largest attended in the school’s hundred-and-fifty-year history. Nearly all the seats were taken and many students (not included in the graduation) sat in the dormitory windows above. The former adjunct professor was introduced as “one of the most famous men in America.” Haley had received several honorary degrees over the years, but the one at Hamilton, he often said, meant the most.
Soon after, he was granted the prestigious Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Rosa Parks Award and was asked by the United Negro College Fund to serve as national vice-chairman of its annual campaign. His books continued to sell and his popularity remained undiminished. Anxious to cash in on Rootsmania, Doubleday financed an overseas tour for its star author. By the onset of the summer 1977—nine months since the book’s publication and six months since the broadcast—the foreign rights of Roots had been sold, translated, and distributed in nearly all of Western Europe, much of Asia, the Middle East, parts of Africa, and South America. As long as Haley made appearances, the book was expected to exceed sales expectations, and in many countries it did, along with other unanticipated consequences.
Officials in South Africa, for example, feared that the book’s release would disrupt their policy of apartheid. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the Bahamas, Roots was being used to rally support against the white candidate during a presidential campaign.
But these were isolated events overshadowed by Haley’s enthusiastic audiences. Israelis, who especially took pride in their own roots, warmly welcomed the author. Haley was showered with awards, met Prime Minister Menachem Begin, toured ancient ruins, and lectured at Hebrew University where students were forced to sit in the aisles and stand along the walls.
The most memorable moment of his overseas tour was in Paris. “Alex Haley!” a group of white tourists hollered in thick Kentucky accents from their bus. Haley paused in his tracks as the bus pulled over. Inspired by Roots, these Southerners with French ancestry had traveled overseas to “dig up their records.” Haley obligingly signed their books.