To commemorate the annual federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I wanted to share a story behind Alex Haley’s Playboy interview of the civil rights leader, which was published exactly 50 years ago this month.
This blog post was originally posted on January 15, 2014.
During the winter of 1964, when the forty-three year-old Alex Haley approached the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for an interview in Playboy, the up-and-coming writer assumed his intended subject would happily oblige.
Having already published articles in Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan, and The Atlantic, and having conducted interviews Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X (all for Playboy), Haley had established himself as one of the nation’s leading African American magazine writers.
If anyone in the media could secure an interview with King, it was Haley, who was praised by the black news publication, Negro Digest, as the “most successful writer we know.”
It seemed like a sure thing.
But, it wasn’t.
When Haley made his first trip to Atlanta, King’s hometown, the Playboy interviewer had realize that he underestimated who he was dealing with.
“[I] never even got to first base; the man was that inaccessible, that committed,” Haley wrote to Alfred Balk, a fellow journalist.
King was always on the move, flying throughout the country to meet with black leaders, politicians, and the masses. As soon as he landed in one city, Haley noted, moments later it seemed King was off to the next. After another unsuccessful visit to Atlanta, Haley needed a new game plan.
What if he tried catching King at the airport, in between flights?
Gutsy, but that approach didn’t pan out.
It seemed that Haley would have to return to his editors at Playboy empty-handed. How had he been successful in luring other notable public figures, but not King?
Haley was desperate.
He was aware that the Reverend was somewhat reluctant to be featured in a magazine with nude photographs of women. To compensate, Haley approached one of King’s assistants, Andrew Young, and offered to waive his fee from the interview in the form of a donation to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Although that may have helped his cause, in the end he pursued a different strategy.
Instead of confronting King, the writer decided to contact directly the civil rights leader’s secretary, Miss Dora McDonald.
“I know that Dr. King now is immersed with Atlanta problems,” he wrote McDonald. “Give me even 15 minutes, a half hour, perhaps lunch with him, for a total time of about four hours?”
McDonald couldn’t make any promises, but she recommended that Haley attend a “church barbecue” and “let him see you there and don’t press.”
Haley heeded her advice.
He attended a picnic sponsored by the church, minded his own business, ate off his “paper plate of barbecued chicken,” and waited for an opportunity to be alone with King. The civil rights leader recognized Haley and knew what he wanted. Haley treaded carefully.
In the course of their conversation, Haley soon realized that King (who was reluctant to admit it) needed Haley and Playboy as much as they needed him. Getting his message out to the white, middle class audience that Playboy served was vital to sustaining the movement’s momentum.
Haley finally set the leader straight: “Think what you will about the girls, but you can’t ignore the audience.” (A little more than a year earlier, Haley used a similar line to entice another black leader, Malcolm X, to submit to an interview as well).
King conceded and eventually sat down with Haley, and gave one of the most memorable Playboy interviews. It was also one of King’s “longest he had ever granted to any publication.”
- Alex Haley, “Playboy Interview: Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Playboy, January 1965
- Hoyt W. Fuller and Doris E. Saunders, “Perspectives,” Negro Digest, July 1962
- “Letter to Alfred Balk from Alex Haley,” March 20, 1064, Box 2, Folder 105 (Haley, Alex, 1962-1973), Series 1 Correspondence 1952-2009, Alfred Balk Papers, Special Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago
- Thomas. Weyr, Reaching for Paradise: The Playboy Vision of America (New York, NY: Times Books, 1978),