When my family watched reruns of Adventures of Superman in my childhood years, I never dreamed that I would one day be walking the halls of The Daily Planet (Los Angeles City Hall) looking all Lex Luthory, but thanks to the gracious invitation of a Pepperdine alum on the staff of the Los Angeles City Attorney, I had the opportunity to serve on a panel discussing “servant leadership” at City Hall last Thursday.
Given the topic, representing Pepperdine on the panel made sense, but when the two other panelists were introduced it was apparent that on a personal level I was in line for the bronze medal. I went first and did not say or do anything particularly embarrassing. Then, Faye Washington, L.A. legend and President and CEO of YWCA Greater Los Angeles was spectacular. Finally, and last by request, Managing Assistant City Attorney, Anne Haley, spoke and took my breath away.
Anne spoke only of her father, George Haley, who passed away only a month ago at the age of 89. It was the first time since his passing that Anne spoke publicly of her father’s remarkable life.
George Haley was born in Tennessee but raised in my home state of Arkansas. He served in World War II and then attended Morehouse College alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Although he could have attended Harvard Law School after college, he chose to be one of the first African-American students to attend the University of Arkansas when he enrolled at the law school in 1949. His experience was terrible.
Haley was required to study alone in a basement office that became popularly known as the “noose room” after classmates left a noose hanging for Haley one memorable afternoon. In spite of the cruel treatment, Haley went on to excel academically and in so doing changed the attitudes of many in the law school.
Haley moved to Kansas following law school where he worked on the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case with Thurgood Marshall. He worked in politics at the state and national level, including roles under five U.S. presidents that culminated in his service as the U.S. Ambassador to The Gambia in West Africa.
You must understand the significance, for you see George’s older brother was Alex Haley, who famously won a Pulitzer Prize for Roots, the story of a slave brought to Colonial America from the very nation to which George Haley traveled to serve as the official representative of the United States.
After the panel, Ms. Haley gave me her card, and I pledged to move heaven and earth to provide an opportunity to tell her father’s story to our law students. She also gave me a copy of an article that her Uncle Alex published in Reader’s Digest in March 1963 titled, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit,” about her father’s experience as a law student in Arkansas, published just months before Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C. (I am thankful to say that the article is available online HERE.) When I arrived home that evening, I read the article in full to my wife and youngest daughter and her best friend, Katie. I was moved beyond words.
This experience and story struck close to home both literally and figuratively and stirred many thoughts and emotions inside me. I still see so many hateful divisions in the world and yet am inspired by a young man’s decision sixty-six years ago to willingly put his life and future on the line to heal such deep hatred—and who didn’t let the hatred win.
At a key point in the story, Haley’s father advised him, “Be patient with them.” That is what motivated George Haley to be The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit. That is a lesson I need to hear over and over again.