The phenomenal success of the 1977 ABC miniseries Roots
all but demanded a sequel to writer Alex Haley's epic story of his African and African-American forebears. Debuting February 18, 1979, Roots: The Next Generations
picked up where its predecessor left off, with Haley's slave ancestors winning their freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War. Even so, life for black Americans was wrought with hardship and oppression thanks to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the staunch refusal of the white power structure to pass anti-lynching laws, and the formation of the dreaded Jim Crow laws which legalized racial segregation in the South (and much of the North). Covering the period from 1882 to the mid-1970s, the miniseries first focuses on blacksmith Tom Harvey (Georg Stanford Brown
), great-grandson of Kunta Kinte (the protagonist of the original Roots
), and his family. Meanwhile, reacting to the marriage of his son to a black woman, anal-retentive Southern colonel Warner (Henry Fonda
) begins setting the legal wheels in motion to deny blacks like Tom the right to vote and to hold "white" jobs. A few decades later, Tom's son-in-law, Will (Marc Singer
), encourages his fellow blacks to stand firm against the KKK's reign of terror. Will's labors on behalf of his race are rewarded when his daughter Bertha (Irene Cara
) becomes the first descendant of Kunta Kinte to receive a college education. It is Bertha who weds the equally ambitious Simon Haley (Dorian Harewood
), who goes on to serve in WWI and to organize farmers and sharecroppers during the Depression.
Simon's son Alex (played at various ages by Kristoff St. John
, Damon Evans
, and finally James Earl Jones
) is just as determined to succeed in a white man's world as his father, and to that end becomes a professional writer after his own service stint in the Coast Guard during WWII. At the height of his professional success (largely due to his having ghost-written the autobiography of Muslim activist Malcolm X), Alex Haley pays a visit to his boyhood hometown -- where, almost by accident, he receives the first clue to his heritage, a clue that will lead him on an odyssey of self-discovery, arriving full circle at Kunta Kinte's birthplace in Africa. Although the miniseries' "money scene" was Haley's nervous interview with American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell (Marlon Brando
in a superb cameo turn), the climactic episode, in which Haley tearfully embraces the living African descendants of Kunta Kinte, is one of the most unforgettable moments in the history of network television. Running 12 episodes and 14 hours, Roots: The Next Generations
concluded on February 25, 1979, playing to huge ratings all along the way and ultimately garnering several Emmy nominations (and one win).