6 The Trial

As the trial date approached, Courlander received a stack of what he described as “nasty letters,” which he did not disclose to his family. On the other hand, a note of encouragement came from social activist and civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, who wrote: “If you think you have a solid legal case against Alex Haley, you should proceed regardless of those who assert that a case will damage black pride.” And there was good news from his publisher. Bantam was planning to rerelease The African; it had been out of print for several years. There was talk of running magazine ads, touting it as “the book that came before the Roots experience.”

The man who would decide the case was Federal Judge Robert J. Ward. “Courlander vs. Haley” would be Judge Ward’s first trial covered by the national media. The press did its best to focus on the core issue at stake: plagiarism. But some black community leaders didn’t care whether or not Roots had been copied; the point was that slavery and racism had finally been acknowledged. A few went as far to suggest that the case was just another example of whites trying to hold back a black man. Courlander insisted his suit was strictly about “literary justice.”

Haley, for his part, maintained that it was inevitable that a successful author would have to endure “such tests as these.” As with Jubilee, Haley denied having read or even been aware of The African prior to the suit against him. The plaintiff, he contended, was just another envious author trying to cash in on his success.

Two Columbia University English professors, Michael Wood and Robert W. Hanning, had been hired to analyze Roots and The African to determine if any copying had taken place. Their report strengthened Courlander’s argument. “The similarities between the two books are not accidental,” Hanning wrote. “Without the materials Haley copied from The African, Roots would have been a far different and, in my opinion, a less effective novel. I believe the materials Haley copied . . . were crucial to the success that Roots has achieved.”

More telling were the sentiments Judge Ward expressed during the course of the trial. Even before reading the legal briefs, Ward explained, he had read The African and Roots. Unlike the experts, who analyzed the books, line-by-line, side-by-side, Ward took an “average reader” approach, reading one and then the other. He came to the same conclusion as the experts.

After three days of testimony, it was time for Haley to take the stand.

“When did you first hear of The African?” Courlander’s attorney asked.

“In the spring of 1977, in connection with an article which appeared in the New York Times.” The author was so soft spoken that the court typist asked him if he could speak louder.

“Had you read the book, The African, prior to the publication of Roots?”

“I had not.”

Herb Boyd, who previously had come to Haley’s defense, found his response implausible. To have missed either Jubilee or The African, in Boyd’s view, was “almost akin to someone doing a book on the history of the black church in America and knowing nothing of [African American scholar, writer, and activist] W.E.B. Du Bois.”

Judge Ward also refused to believe how Haley could have spent more than a decade researching a book about Africans and African Americans without coming across The African. The book had been released in the middle of his Roots research and had been highly praised by those in the discipline. After hearing the defendant’s explanation of his unorthodox research methodology during the trial, Ward expressed his view to the court:

Mr. Haley . . . as I see it, got hold of the book or substantial portions of it . . . made a lot of notes on cards or pieces of papers, shoved them in different folders on subject matter, and then took bits and pieces and worked them in, plugged them into the different subjects that he was addressing in his much longer book.

The general consensus in the courtroom was that Haley had plagiarized Roots from The African, and had lied about it under oath.

A denial plan, crafted by the writer’s defense team, wasn’t working anymore. The evidence Haley had been forced to provide the plaintiff prior to the trial demonstrated that he had copied from other books as well, including Shirley Graham’s The Story of Phillis Wheatly. None of the verbatim passages he copied into his notebooks cited an author’s name. Ward’s theory seemed right—Haley’s way of procuring research material was to either photocopy the document or copy it by hand into one of his many notebooks. It was as if, by inserting these texts into his own binders, they became, miraculously, his own. Courlander, who had written more than twenty books, was taken aback. He had just exposed the most celebrated author of the era as a fraud.

Before the conclusion of the trial, Haley had tried to settle out of court with Courlander for $250,000 (the equivalent today of $1 million). Though it was a substantial sum for Courlander, who was never able to rely on his own royalties to earn a living, he had rejected the offer. Nearly a third of Roots came from his own book, he argued. Without The African, Roots would not be Roots. At this point, a verdict of guilty seemed inevitable. But Ward knew those following the case, especially in the black community, were going to perceive the proceedings differently, regardless of the evidence and testimony. The judge encouraged the defendant to settle, but Haley would have to propose a more generous amount the second time around. With an estimated net worth of $7.5 million, Haley could afford to offer more, and Courlander knew it. As the trial wound down to its final days, Haley conferred with his attorneys, who were, according to one reporter, reluctant to settle. The day before the verdict was to be rendered, Haley agreed to pay Courlander $650,000 (nearly triple his original offer) and sign a release stating that there were “various” (not eighty-one, as the plaintiff contested) passages from The African that had somehow found their way into Roots. Courlander was granted a sum of money larger than all of his past earnings from books combined. The trial was over and the racial repercussions feared by Judge Ward did not materialize. And Haley narrowly escaped a reputation-destroying verdict; he didn’t even have to acknowledge authorship of the disputed passages in future editions of the book.

With the Roots sequel scheduled to air in six weeks, Haley seemed to have regained his equilibrium. Privately, he remained convinced that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. The settlement was not, to his way of thinking, a lucky break. On the contrary, the trial had been unfair and he had been victimized.

Back out on the lecture circuit, determined to satisfy his critics and redeem himself to his fans, Haley presented an arsenal of responses: “The reason for the settlement, at the last minute, was that a skilled lawyer that morning was preparing to paint me as a villain.” “How can you explain every word that you write?” “I don’t remember where I got something at three a.m. eight years ago.” “I became a sitting duck for lawsuits.” When asked to elaborate, he didn’t hesitate.

Since Roots was published in over twenty-five languages and countries, Haley explained, he was vulnerable to suits in each of those jurisdictions. He had to settle.

Besides, he admitted, there was no way he could have accounted for all the information he had accumulated. Out on the road, while writing Roots, it wasn’t unusual for the author to be given stacks of material by audience members that might be useful in his writing. One of those people had been Native American writer Joseph Bruchac. On Thursday, January 22, 1970, Alex Haley had delivered a lecture at Skidmore College in upstate New York. Bruchac, an ethnic studies instructor at Skidmore, had found Haley “to know so relatively little about” West African history that he’d recommended the then-recently-published historical novel, The African. Surprised Haley had not even heard of the book, Bruchac had driven back to his home, three miles away, to retrieve his “own personal copy.”

“Here, you can keep it,” Bruchac handed the book to Haley. “Thank You,” Haley replied, “I’ll read it on the plane.”

Bruchac was subsequently stunned to read about Courlander’s case. He knew his testimony could make a difference. Unfortunately for Courlander, by the time Bruchac decided to write to him, the trial was over.

Almost two years since the original broadcast, Roots: The Next Generation aired. Reaching 110 million Americans, it proved to be the second-most watched program in TV history after the initial miniseries. Its higher advertising fees generated more money for Haley than the original. His lecture circuit appearances now paid a minimum of $5,000 per speech. Boosted by the sequel’s success, the book’s total sales now exceeded eight million copies worldwide.

Although he swore he’d never write again after being emotionally and financially drained from legal battles, the growing list of requests from fellow authors, publishing houses, and periodicals made it difficult for him to abandon his craft. He accepted offers to pen introductions for books about African American history, genealogy, and memoirs of friends. He occasionally wrote an article for USA Today’s newspaper insert magazine, Parade, and other popular publications. Wealthier than ever, Haley was still beloved by the public. He was, in the words of a Washington Post socialite columnist, “now a solid member of the professional class,” mingling with both political and Hollywood elite. Among young African Americans, he was voted the “third most admired black man in America . . . after Muhammad Ali and Stevie Wonder.”

And to end the decade on a high note, Haley and his brothers purchased their grandparents’ home, which they donated to the State of Tennessee. Christened by the Tennessee Historic Landmark Commission as the Palmer House (named after its builder and Haley’s beloved grandfather, Will Palmer), it became Tennessee’s “first state-owned historic site devoted to African Americans.” Located on the newly renamed Haley Avenue, the house was a block away from Hickman Street. Henning had now developed a mini-tourism industry thanks to Alex Haley, not Jim Hickman.

Courlander, meanwhile, published an op-ed in the Village Voice. Haley, he wrote, was portraying himself as an “innocent bystander caught in the crush” of his own success. But no one was listening. Courlander would be remembered not for his literary achievements, but for suing the author of Roots. According to his son, Michael Courlander, he never got over it.

 

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The Trial Copyright © 2014 by Adam Henig. All Rights Reserved.

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