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1977 TV Series Changed How Americans View Race - 2002-01-30

Twenty-five years ago a television miniseries changed the way that many Americans think. It changed forever the way Americans talk about race. And it inspired whole new avenues of study. That miniseries was Roots, based on a book of the same name by Alex Haley. Recently, the miniseries was re-broadcast on television and an hour-long documentary looked at the show's impact.

Kunta Kinte was a young man who lived in the West African country of The Gambia in the mid-1700s. He was captured by slave traders and transported to colonial America.

In 1767, he was sold into slavery in Annapolis, the state capital of Maryland. Today, there's a memorial to Kunta Kinte at the Annapolis city dock, on the site of that long-ago slave auction. The plaque also honors the late Alex Haley and his story, Roots. Kunta Kinte was the author's ancestor. The book was an up-from-slavery tale about several generations of the author's family. Alex Haley's son William says his father knew, even while he was writing Roots, that it would be special.

"He wrote us a letter in '67 in which he indicated that this would be an epic book ... and that it had been optioned for television at that time," said William Haley.

What no one could have foreseen was the impact the television miniseries would have. As show aired over eight days in January, 1977, 130 million Americans stayed glued to their television sets, and many of them gained a new perspective on American history - slavery from a slave's point of view, and the long fight to defeat that institution's horrors.

"I identified with the struggle, with the determination," remembers John Lewis, a Georgia Congressman. He remembers watching Roots when it first aired in 1977 and says he understood the story through his own experience fighting for civil rights for African Americans, the message that "you had to hang in there. You couldn't give up. You couldn't give in. You had to be strong. And I admired that," said Congressman Lewis.

America watched the miniseries, and Americans talked about what they had seen. Roots put a human face to slavery and to a history that had been little understood and often ignored. The dialogue Roots created is credited with inspiring a surge in interest in all things African: art, textiles, history. Universities across the country established African-American studies programs, which in turn led to studies in Latino, Asian and Native American history. And the book and television series sent thousands of people in search of their own family stories.

"All Americans are keen to know, 'where did I come from? What is my history? Who identifies me?'," said poet and actress Maya Angelou, who performed in Roots. "The truth is you can never know where you're going unless you know where you've been."

Many African-Americans, in particular, began to research their own ancestors who had been slaves. One woman, Dorothy Redford, traced her roots to Somerset Plantation in North Carolina. Later, she organized an annual homecoming for descendants of the slaves there. And today, Ms. Redford works as an interpreter in the plantation's living history program. Many of the actors who worked on the miniseries, such as Maya Angelou, Leslie Uggams and Ben Vereen, say the experience of filming it was very powerful. Lavar Burton was just 19 years old when he won the role of the young Kunta Kinte. The role launched his career. He remembers the pain of filming Kunta Kinte's capture and being placed in chains on a slave ship in a scene shot in a warehouse in Savannah, Georgia.

"The night before we started shooting those scenes in the hold of the ship, Alex [Haley] brought to me a galley copy of the novel Roots and said, 'you know, this may be of interest to you.' And I stayed up all night reading those sections [about loading slaves on the ships] and then for the next three days lived, lived it, the middle passage," he said, referring to the portion of the slave ships' journey from Africa to North and South America and the Caribbean.

Mr. Burton says that Alex Haley's Roots - both the book and the television miniseries - was something of a watershed, a dividing line, for the country.

"What a great gift Alex gave us. I think that Roots, 25 years later, is as viable and vital today as it was then. And the gift, as I say, is that Alex really gave us in Roots the courage to have the conversation about race in America," said Mr. Burton.

The miniseries Roots was a critically acclaimed phenomenon, garnering nine Emmy awards, five TV Critics Awards and a special Peabody Award that stated that the program "dramatically expos[ed] us to an aspect of our history that many of us never knew but all of us will never forget."