Alex Haley Heritage Square, Knoxville


Alex Haley
Haley’s monument in Knoxville.

Alex Haley sits, in bronze 13 feet tall, next to a playground, above the Morningside Park, above the disc golf course, the greenway the fitness trail, all of it. His hands hold an open book.

Built during my lifetime in 1996, the statue has little explanation about who the man it shows was, except a quotation: “Find the good and praise it.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Haley recently, so it was a pure happy coincidence I stumbled on his statue in February (and as I have to explain, before that thing I’m not addressing in this post). I’ve been thinking about him, not just as some past historical figure but as an inspiration, a role model even.

Yes, a role model. I grew up with my library’s VHS tapes of the adaptation of his most famous work “Roots.” But I’ll admit he wasn’t perfect. I know he was probably guilty of plagiarism. I know “Roots” was largely a fictional work that didn’t match with records from primary sources. Also I haven’t read as much of his work as I’d like to have, although I plan to fix that.

But I’ve been thinking broadly, not just about “Roots” but about Haley’s other work and his times.

Haley lived at a time when the nation was in conflict, not just one side against the other side, but multiple sides, sometimes fighting, sometimes collaborating. Martin Luther King was preaching a vision of African Americans joining in and pursuing the American Dream, becoming equal with white Americans. Meanwhile Malcolm X was preaching a different, if ultimately more similar to MLK than people admit, vision: an independent black nation able to stand on its own and defend itself. Both were complex figures whose views probably can’t be summarized that easily. And then there were many others who could be whole books unto themselves.

And all the while, white America was also divided. There were those who supported these new movements. But there were also those who opposed them. Some put on a respectable front, joining White Citizen Councils. But others like George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party did the opposite, wrapping their all-too-american prejudices in the language and flags of the US’s old enemy: the Nazis.

And where was Haley during all this? He was at Playboy, writing stuff to go in between the centerfolds.

But it was excellent stuff! Historical stuff! He was there to sit down with these now legendary figures and record their words for future generations.

He spoke to Martin Luther King Jr. (the interview’s available here) for what the magazine billed as the longest interview that leader ever granted. And it was a personal one too. In it he revealed his emotions when explaining segregation and his time in jail to his children. In the interview Haley asked how he responded to all different kinds of critics: those that said he was too moderate and those that called him an “outside agitator” alike. He explained his goals. And he made the famous statement that white moderates were more of a threat to his cause than the Klu Klux Klan.

But it wasn’t just MLK. He went on to, very famously, get through to Malcolm X, getting him, reluctantly, to share his entire life story, leading to a whole book narrated to him. A book I haven’t read but at some point aim to.  A shorter earlier interview is available here.

And then there was George Lincoln Rockwell (massive content warning ). This is the accomplishment, talking to the grandaddy of the Alt Right that really fascinates me. To run up to a neo-Nazi and punch him in the face may be flashy, but to sit down with a neo-Nazi and press him for answers, not letting him get away with any of his lying talking points, is admirably courageous. Especially the way Haley describes the lead up to it.

“Fifteen minutes later, with me and my tape recorder in the back and my two chaperones in the front, the car turned into a narrow, tree-lined road, slowed down as it passed a No Trespassing sign (stamped with a skull and crossbones) and a leashed Doberman watchdog, and finally pulled up in front of a white, 16-room farmhouse emblazoned at floor- and second-story levels with four-foot-high red swastikas. About a dozen Nazis stared icily as the guards walked me past them and up the stairs to Rockwell’s door, where a side-armed storm trooper frisked me expertly from head to toe.”

Then, of course there’s the classic moment, dramatized by James Earl Jones and Marlon Brando on PBS.

Rockwell: Good. Just so we both know where we stand, I’d like to make something else crystal clear before we begin. I’m going to be honest and direct with you. You’re here in your professional capacity; I’m here in my professional capacity. While here, you’ll be treated well—but I see you’re a black interviewer. It’s nothing personal, but I want you to understand that I don’t mix with your kind, and we call your race “niggers.”

Haley: I’ve been called “nigger” many times, Commander, but this is the first time I’m being paid for it. So you go right ahead. What have you got against us “niggers”?

There are the people who usually get statues: soldiers, activists, people who make history. But then there are the people who write history as it happens, even if it is between centerfolds. And Haley is one of those. I look at his statue with admiration for all he accomplished.