Malcolm X, in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley,” described by Time magazine as one of the 10 best non-fiction books of the century, told Alex Haley to remind his younger brother, George Haley, not to forget that it was because of Malcolm and others raising hell in the streets as fighters for racial democracy that George was able to make it in Kansas where he became the first Black state senator in 1964.
Eight years ago in the basement of his Silver Spring home in Maryland, I asked George what he thought of Malcolm’s remarks about him in that seminal book. He looked at me and laughed and called it “a rather interesting distinction.” I smiled back and we continued looking over materials he wanted to share with me, including letters Alex wrote to him as he traveled around the country and the world. From the correspondences I deduced that he was Alex’s secret weapon.
George Haley, the man known to many as “Ambassador Haley,” died May 13 at his home at the age of 89. Malcolm X clocked 90 on May 19 and on May 22, George will be laid to rest in Washington, DC. No man has had a greater impact on my life growing up than George Haley. He was an accomplished lawyer, a United States ambassador, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, a son of the South, a family man, a Morehouse man, a thinker of the Black experience and a person who did not allow Jim Crow to subdue him when he became the second Black to earn a law degree at the University of Arkansas. As he would explain later, he was living in a basement and would go upstairs to take his classes. He went on to serve six U.S. presidents.
I met George when I was a teenager looking to explore the possibilities of the world and how to better myself living in a fatherless home. Being raised by a grandmother who was doing her best, I had the good fortune one day of meeting Ambassador Haley, who instantly took an interest in me. He treasured my grandmother and congratulated her on many occasions for her efforts in raising a Black boy. Not knowing what the future would hold for me as a teenager because I did not have the typical structure of parental support, George entered my life, enamored by my germinating skills as a budding writer. As a mentor, he told me the world was my oyster and shared stories of his life with me including what Jim Crow did to him.
One day, during one of my regular visits to his office, he started asking pointed questions about the unexplained absence of my dad. I told him the stories my grandmother shared with me about my father not being at home. He looked at me closely, tense and upset. He shook his head and told me never to feel bad about that because “the man upstairs” was in control. He was not an absent father. He was a present father who loved and always talked about his kids.
No doubt, having someone of his stature say that to a lad who was at a crucial stage in life was reassuring. Many young men today, especially Black boys, need the confidence and support of accomplished men who have crossed every Rubicon with grace and dignity, to tell them that their world is not going to fall apart and support them in ensuring that they too can be meaningfully and productively engaged and become change makers.
We developed a father-son relationship. He told me about Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, the former president of Morehouse College and the man who mentored him, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. His favorite quote from Dr. Mays that he left me with was, “The man who outthinks you, rules you.”
He talked about the need for critical thinkers in the Black community, and said we owed it to ourselves to provide an atmosphere that would illuminate the brilliance of Black boys and allow them to grow into manhood and find a sense of achievement.
He talked about the responsibilities of writers having the ability and power to narrate and shape history. Black writers in particular, he believed, should never fail to articulate the Black experience and tell stories that often could otherwise go missing. He referenced many times the book “Roots,” written by Alex, and how it impacted the world. I still kept a copy of “Roots” in my study which he autographed for me as a birthday gift. We discussed numerous times the importance of preserving a bibliography of Black writers of the last century.
As a Morehouse graduate of the class of 1949, the same time Dr. King was at Morehouse, he believed in the philosophy of Dr. Mays and what he did in training and preparing generations of Black men like him and others at Morehouse who would go on to change the world and better their communities.
George Haley was a first-rate gentleman of the era before and after Jim Crow. In 1963, Alex Haley wrote in Readers Digest, “George Haley: The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit,” an article that chronicled the persistent racial humiliation he underwent at the University of Arkansas.
“The first day of school, he went quickly to his basement room, put his sandwich on the table, and headed 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. On the second day, he was greeted with open taunts and threats: ‘You, nigger, what are you doing here?’ and ‘Hey, nigger, go back to Africa.’ He tried not to hear, to walk with an even pace, with dignity,” Alex wrote about George in a piece that was a classic example of the Jim Crow era.
When Dr. King appeared at Kansas State University (KSU) in January of 1968, George came with him. Decades later, the university would invite him to return, in 2011, to hear the rediscovered recordings of King’s remarks. What was also discovered was another piece of history. After King’s assassination, a handwritten note with George’s name on it was found in his coat pocket.
In 2010, during one of his shuttle visits to Michigan, he asked me to meet him for lunch at the Westin Hotel in Southfield. There I asked him about the note found in King’s jacket. He said he was happy the new information would allow the university to do more around race and justice and went on to explain how it happened.
King scribbled down names of individuals, including George, that he needed to recognize before speaking at KSU. George and three other university officials, including then-KSU President McCain, had chartered a plane to pick King up in Manhattan, Kansas so he could come speak at the university.
George Haley believed in education and his life was shaped by seminal events. When he came out of law school, he joined the law firm of Stevens Jackson in Kansas, which provided work in the Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka.
I treasured his mentorship. I cherished the father figure he was to me. I was honored to have known and spent a significant amount of time with him. I accompanied him to events he wanted me to be at. For instance, when his close friend Simeon Booker, whose groundbreaking coverage of the Emmett Till murder trial made him one of the most iconic Black journalists of all time, celebrated his 50 years as Washington Bureau chief for Jet magazine, George asked me to come as his guest to the celebration.
His lasting impact on me would never wane with the passage of time.
Before he became ill, I always expected an interrogating call from him at the office in a sagely voice wanting to know what the latest update was on me, especially he if didn’t hear from me for a month or two. If his call went to voice mail, our receptionist, Pauline Leatherwood, would leave a note to say that George Haley called from Maryland.
When my son was born he was excited. He sent a Christmas gift for him every year. It was always predictable — something to keep him warm in the winter. We talked about fatherhood and the challenges and opportunities that come with such responsibility, highlighted in Dr. Curtis Ivery’s book “Black Fatherhood: Reclaiming Our Legacy.”
George Williford Boyce Haley, born in Henning, Tennessee, will be missed by his wife, Doris Haley, a retired Washington, D.C. educator, and his children, attorney Anne-Haley Brown, who works in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, and son David Haley, a Kansas state senator, and his beloved grandchildren.
George Haley lived a full life and he will continue to live on in the lives of those he helped and mentored. He was a man of mark and the giant who never quit.