A Better Day:
Remembering Alex Haley and Mario Savio
By Tony Platt | The Rag Blog | January 10, 2012
Let me drink from the waters
where the mountain streams flood
Let the smell of wildflowers
flow free through my blood
Let me sleep in your meadows
with the green grassy leaves
Let me walk down the highway
with my brother in peace
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground
— Bob Dylan, “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” 1963
In 1963 I moved from England to California, in part to get as far away as possible from my father’s overbearing influence. The political divide between us had deepened as I embraced Marxism and the New Left, while he shunned anything smacking of isms, except capitalism.
As he soured on politics, I was ready to be inspired by Mario Savio standing on a police car in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, urging us to put our bodies on the gears and wheels of the machine in order to make it stop; and by Malcolm X, as channeled by Alex Haley, saying it was possible for black and white to unite and fight. “In our mutual sincerity we might be able to show a road to the salvation of America’s very soul.”
My father and I, as it turns out, shared a very similar political trajectory: unrealistic optimism followed by pessimistic realism. For Monty, the 30s promised global socialism. For me, the 60s was a vibrant and hopeful era, with socialism spreading throughout the world, social democracy coming to the West, and colonialism on the run in the Third World.
The collapse of utopian dreams is always rupturing, and always unexpected. The rise and fall of Alex Haley, and the spirit and untimely death of Mario Savio epitomize for me the hope and demise of the New Left.
Alex Haley was an unlikely hero. Without any formal training in history, not even a college degree, he wrote two bestsellers that more than any other books written about the United States in the twentieth century changed the public conversation about race.
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), he made a black revolutionary into a popular, cultural icon and a model of redemption. And his book Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) – and, more important, the television mini-series on which it was based — are credited with generating an unprecedented black-white dialogue, as well as a compelling origins story.
Six million copies of Malcolm X were sold by 1977 and 130 million viewers watched Roots.
Haley wasn’t a particularly good historian. He lifted whole sections from another author’s book for Roots; his ties to his supposed African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, are likely fictional; and recent research on Malcolm X has blown huge holes in Haley’s hagiography. But he was a hell of a good storyteller and the stories he told resonated with millions of people.
I got a sense of his rock-star popularity in 1989 when he visited Sacramento State University, where I was teaching at the time. Nobody seemed to care about his oddly Republican politics, or the plagiarism charges, or sloppy scholarship. “You are the answer to the prayer of our ancestors who hoped during uncertain, terrible times that there would be a better day,” was his upbeat message spoken to a large, mostly youthful crowd on a crisp, fall day.
He seemed to look each of us directly in the eye, urging us to find common ground, telling us what we had come to hear. He was on the road, giving his stump speech, the talk that he had delivered so many times since Roots that the only notes he needed were the ones reminding him where he was and to whom he was speaking.
Some of my friends were disappointed because they expected something new or different. But most people there wanted to hear the familiar speech, delivered in his unpretentious style, a message of reassurance and comfort. He told us the story about how he came to write Roots. Like all good folk tales, we wanted to hear the ending that we already knew.
Although Haley’s speech seemed to ramble from anecdote to anecdote, it was in fact finely honed and crafted, a mosaic of disparate threads. Constructed around a narrative that traced his life from childhood to the present, his story was crammed full of moral lessons, biographies, autobiography, motherwit, and parables.
Haley’s message was relentless: a people whose voice has been long silenced and whose vision has been long hidden from history in fact possess a wondrous past that can’t be denied. The crowd listened closely, imagining the untold stories of our individual pasts and the unexplored potentiality of our collective futures. And in case we missed the point, the motif on his stationary proclaims: “Find The Good – And Praise It.”
Haley’s stories moved easily between experience and imagination, a talent that upset critics who prefer writers to come packaged in appropriate boxes — fictional or non-fictional. By this time, Haley probably wasn’t sure which was which. In Roots, he invented dialogue. Malcolm X wanted Haley to serve as his recorder and clean up his grammar, but Haley engaged his subject in a passionate dialogue that resulted in a memorable book of many voices.
Haley left the Coast Guard in 1959 after a 21-year enlistment. He was 38 years old, searching for a new career. He was an outsider to academia — he had quit college after two unsuccessful years, despite the advice of his professorial father — and regarded as an interloper by the Negro literati who, with one notable exception, had no time for a writer who had learned his craft writing love letters for illiterate sailors and public relations pieces for Uncle Sam.
When C. Eric Lincoln, a fellow writer and authority on black Muslims, proposed Haley’s membership in an African American academic group in the early 1960s, years before he became a celebrity, he was voted down because he lacked proper credentials. In response to his inquiry to leading black writers, asking for their advice about how to make it as a freelance journalist, James Baldwin, fresh from his success with Go Tell It On The Mountain and Notes of a Native Son, was the only who took time to see Haley and give him tips about how to survive in New York’s cutthroat literary circles.
Years later, the tables were turned: Haley’s books were selling in the millions and Baldwin was struggling to survive, economically and physically. When Baldwin called, asking for advice and a “loan,” Haley quickly wrote him the first of many checks, “never more than just a few thousand.” Haley told me that he would never forget the “thin-as-a-willow-reed” writer whose generosity defied the snobbish intellectuals who had turned their backs on a struggling writer without status. Later, when Roots made Haley a rich man, he turned over the royalties of The Autobiography to Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz.
Though he got paid well to visit Sacramento State for half a day, there was no show-biz glamour or phalanx of security guards. He walked slowly through the campus, portly and easy-going, stopping to greet the constant stream of admirers who let out squeals usually reserved for movie stars. They came up asking for autographs or to shake his hand, but quickly found themselves answering his questions about their roots.
Still, he was never really comfortable in the public spotlight or around intellectuals. He preferred writing about legends than being one. And so every year, once in the summer and once in the winter for two months at a time, he would retreat to the “fruitful writing isolation of a cargo ship,” crisscrossing the Atlantic and Pacific just as he had done in the Coast Guard.
“It is my impression,” Haley wrote to me during a slow trip to Australia, “that academia contains some of the more grudging folk in this world. With no respect whatever to the institution of academia, I counted one of my luckier things that I did not become a scholar, as my professor father very strongly intended. In fact, there were three sons of us for whom he had this intention, and we turned out to be writer, lawyer, and architect. Dad, bless his heart, was still nonetheless proud of us.”
When Haley finished his talk in Sacramento and the audience rose to give him a standing ovation, I realized that this was the first time I had ever been part of a truly multicultural audience on campus. For a brief moment, the university actually reflected the diversity of our community.
Hundreds of black high school kids, most of whom will never make it to any university under our current system, had come to witness the rare spectacle of an African American as an American hero. They were loud and boisterous during Haley’s speech and, after it was over, they had a purposeful gleam in their eyes, a renewed determination to envision a better day.
Alex Haley’s ability to reach and move a crowd reminded me of the time that 22-year-old Mario Savio reached and moved me. I was in my second year as a graduate student in Berkeley in 1964 when Savio, in protest of the university’s ban on political speech, told a campus crowd on December 2nd that “there’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part.” Drawing upon imagery from Thoreau, he called upon to us practice civil disobedience and to jam the gears of the machine.
That day, Savio and 800 others were arrested in Sproul Plaza. I supported the Free Speech Movement, but avoided arrest then since I was nervous about my immigration status. (About a decade later, I’d make amends by getting arrested twice during People’s Park protests at the same site.)
The FSM was a defining moment for activism in the 1960s and for my own political development. Poised between the civil rights struggles of the previous decade and the promise of the antiwar and feminist movements ahead, it offered our generation of students the opportunity to participate in history, to be activists in our own right rather than vicarious participants in other people’s struggles.
It was a joy to feel that we might be part of an emergent majority, with the moral authority of justice on our side for once. Savio was not the only leader of the student movement, but his example of self-sacrifice moved many people like myself to deeply consider our political commitments and to put our beliefs into practice. Also, it helped that we were on the winning side: the university revoked its ban on political speech.
Thirty years later, in 1994, I was back in Sproul Plaza for the Free Speech Movement’s reunion. In the intervening years, my political activism cost me my job at Berkeley, but I was lucky to get a tenure-track job at Sacramento State. Mario had not been as lucky. It took him until 1984 to get a science degree and until 1989 to get his master’s degree.
He was nearly 50 years old when he started teaching math and philosophy as a lecturer at Sonoma State University. By then the boom years in academia were over and part-time jobs were the norm.
There was a large crowd on hand at the reunion, including a new generation of activists who were eager to witness a slice of history and hear old-timers justify our pasts. Mario Savio — now graying, balding, and pony-tailed, like many of us in the crowd — spoke with vigor and eloquence about our legacy, likening us in the words of T.S. Eliot to “the hidden laughter of children in the foliage.” There we had been, in the margins and shadows of political power, but still alive and kicking, “sudden in a shaft of sunlight even while the dust moves.”
Mario was not there that December day in 1994 to sentimentalize or bury our movement. If it had been hard on him to live with fame and notoriety in the aftermath of the 1960s, it was even harder to be treated in the 1990s as an icon of a long-gone past. He insistently spoke to the present, of the growing boldness of an increasingly reactionary political system, attacks on immigrant and women’s rights, and the rollback of civil rights gains. Be vigilant, don’t mourn, and get organized, he told us.
A few months later, Mario and I worked together in the Campus Coalitions for Human Rights and Social Justice, a loose-knit organization of campus activists in northern California. Our challenge, no less, was to go against the tide of immigrant bashing, prison building, and welfare cutting. In particular, we focused our efforts on opposing the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, which as Proposition 209 on the 1996 ballot asked voters to go beyond even the most conservative Supreme Court decisions to end all forms of state-supported affirmative action.
It was an uphill battle. Mario had been more hopeful than most of us that the attack on affirmative action would generate a political revival by combining youthful idealism with wise experience, creating the basis for a new, vibrant, cross-generational movement. Pity he didn’t live to see the rise of the Occupy movement; he would have been out there on the front lines.
It was difficult for him to accept the degree to which universities had by the 1990s become sites of demobilization and cynicism. When his health, already a problem for many years, got worse, his friends urged him to slow down and take it easy, which, for a short while, he did. “Obviously I needed to pull back,” he wrote me in May of 1996. “In the past I have not had the good sense to read my own signals right. Guess I’m growing up — at last, and just in time!”
But, quickly, he was back in the fray, compelled by the news that the anti-affirmative action forces were in disarray and that, with enough effort and work, we had a chance to defeat Proposition 209. Mario worked with his son Nadav day and night to produce a pamphlet, “In Defense of Affirmative Action,” which was used widely on campuses in the last few weeks of the campaign. It helped to close the gap in the polls, but with insufficient money, the damning of faint support by the National Democratic Party, and a low voter turnout, our anti-209 campaign failed by eight points.
Mario suffered a heart attack and went into a coma a few days before the elections, and died the day after without regaining consciousness. He left life as he lived it, intensely committed and passionate in his public politics, gracious in private to his friends. I miss his shaft of sunlight.
- Alex Haley (1921-1992)
- Mario Savio (1942-1996)
[Tony Platt is the author of 10 books and 150 essays and articles dealing with issues of race, inequality, and social justice in American history. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Truthdig, History News Network, Z Magazine, Monthly Review, and the Guardian. Platt, now an emeritus professor living in Berkeley, California, taught at the University of Chicago, University of California (Berkeley), and California State University (Sacramento). This article was also posted to his blog, GoodToGo. Read more articles by Tony Platt on The Rag Blog.]