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1970s / Alex Haley Plagiarism Scandal 1978
In 1978, Alex Haley, the renowned author of Roots, came under fire in a plagiarism lawsuit launched by a white anthropologist and fellow author Harold Courlander. Haley claimed he had spent a decade researching his heritage for his historical novel, which in 1977 was adapted as a wildly successful TV miniseries. That same year he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and the Spingarn Medal for the book. A year later his reputation was forever marred. Courlander went to the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York to charge that Roots was substantially plagiarized from Courlander's own book, The African. Courlander's witnesses included Michael Wood an English professor at Columbia University and an expert on plagiarism. Wood opined in a report that the evidence of plagiarism in Roots was 'clear and irrefutable' and that the copying of passages was 'significant and extensive.' After a five-week trial in federal district court, Courlander and Haley settled the case, with Haley making a financial settlement of $650,000 and a statement that 'Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African by Harold Courlander found their way into his book Roots.' Haley claimed the appropriation of Courlander's passages had been unintentional. Haley orginally maintained he had never heard of The African, much less read it. Shortly after the trial, however, Joseph Bruchac, an instructor of black literature at Skidmore College, came forward to swear in an affidavit that in 1970 or 1971--five or six years before the publication of Roots--he had discussed The African with Haley and had given his 'own personal copy of The African to Haley.' In a later interview with BBC Television, Judge Ward stated, 'Alex Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public.'