Year
1977
Month Day
January 29

"Roots" premieres on television

January 29, 1977 sees the premiere of Roots, a groundbreaking television program. The eight-episode miniseries, which was broadcast over eight consecutive nights, follows a family from its origins in West Africa through generations of slavery and the end of the Civil War. Roots one of the most-watched television events in American history and a major moment in mainstream American culture's reckoning with the legacy of slavery.

The miniseries was based on Alex Haley's novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which he claimed was based on research he had conducted into his own family history. Though these claims were later debunked, the story succeeded in dramatizing and personalizing the brutal, true story of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in America. It begins with Kunta Kinte, a warrior belonging to the Mandinka ethnic group and living in what is now the Gambia. Kunta is captured and sold to slave traders, endures a harrowing journey aboard a slave ship, and is eventually sold to a plantation owner in Virginia. The story follows the remainder of his life, including a brutal scene in which he is tortured into acknowledging his slave name, Toby, and continues to follow his family for several generations. Kunta's daughter, her son George, and his sons Tom and Lewis experience life on various plantations and are subjected to many historically-accurate brutalities, including the separation of slave families and harassment from whites after the abolition of slavery. The book and miniseries were recognized for balancing this sweeping narrative with intensely personal stories and brutally realistic depictions of the horrors of slavery.

Due to fears about the audience's reaction to these depictions, ABC decided to air Roots on eight consecutive nights as a way of cutting its losses. Instead, Roots achieved unprecedented popularity. An estimated 140 million people, accounting for over half of the population of the United States, saw the series, and its finale remains the second-most-watched series finale in American television history. A cultural phenomenon, it was nominated for 37 Emmys and won nine, including Best Limited Series and Best Writing in a Drama Series. A sequel miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations, aired in 1979 to impressive ratings and several more award nominations.

Some found Roots to be divisive—future president Ronald Reagan opined that "the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive." Other commentators noted that the series went out of its way to include "good" or morally conflicted white characters who did not exist in the book. Overall, however, critics praised Roots for "dealing with the institution of slavery and its effect on succeeding generations of one family in a dramatic form," something uncommon in American culture and virtually unheard of on American television at the time. Roots continues to be remembered as both a moving work of fiction and a step forward in America's difficult confrontation with its racial history

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

George Bush State of the Union 2002

George W. Bush describes Iraq, Iran and North Korea as "axis of evil"

On January 29, 2002, in his first State of the Union address since the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush describes Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil." Just over a year into his presidency and several months into a war which would eventually become the ...read more

Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter sign accords

On January 29, 1979, Deng Xiaoping, deputy premier of China, meets President Jimmy Carter, and together they sign historic new accords that reverse decades of U.S. opposition to the People’s Republic of China. Deng Xiaoping lived out a full and complete transformation of China. ...read more

King George III dies

Ten years after mental illness forced him to retire from public life, King George III, the British king who lost the American colonies, dies at the age of 81. In 1760, 20-year-old George succeeded his grandfather, George II, as king of Great Britain and Ireland. Although he hoped ...read more

William McKinley, first U.S. president to ride in a car, is born

On January 29, 1843, William McKinley, who will become the 25th American president and the first to ride in an automobile, is born in Niles, Ohio. McKinley served in the White House from 1897 to 1901, a time when the American automotive industry was in its infancy. During his ...read more

U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame elects first members

On January 29, 1936, the U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame elects its first members in Cooperstown, New York: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Matthewson and Walter Johnson. The Hall of Fame actually had its beginnings in 1935, when plans were made to build a museum devoted to ...read more

German lieutenant Erwin Rommel leads daring mission in France

On January 29, 1915, in the Argonne region of France, German lieutenant Erwin Rommel leads his company in the daring capture of four French block-houses, the structures used on the front to house artillery positions. Rommel crept through the French wire first and then called ...read more

Peter, Paul and Mary sign their first recording contract

Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t revolutionize folk music the way Bob Dylan did. Dylan’s songwriting fundamentally altered and then ultimately transcended the folk idiom itself, while Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t even write their own material. They were good-looking, crowd-pleasing ...read more

“The Raven” is published

Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “The Raven,” beginning “Once upon a midnight dreary,” is published on this day in the New York Evening Mirror. Poe’s dark and macabre work reflected his own tumultuous and difficult life. Born in Boston in 1809, Poe was orphaned at age three and went ...read more

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward marry

One of Hollywood’s most enduring marriages begins on January 29, 1958, when Paul Newman weds Joanne Woodward in Las Vegas, Nevada. The two actors first met in the early 1950s while working in New York City on a Broadway production of the romantic drama Picnic. Newman had a ...read more

School shooting in San Diego

Brenda Spencer kills two men and wounds nine children as they enter the Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego. Spencer blazed away with rifle shots from her home directly across the street from the school. After 20 minutes of shooting, police surrounded Spencer’s home ...read more

“Dr. Strangelove” premieres

Stanley Kubrick’s black comic masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb opens in theaters to both critical and popular acclaim. The movie’s popularity was evidence of changing attitudes toward atomic weapons and the concept of nuclear ...read more

Kansas enters the Union

On January 29, 1861, Kansas is admitted to the Union as free state. It was the 34th state to join the Union. The struggle between pro- and anti-slave forces in Kansas was a major factor in the eruption of the Civil War. In 1854, Kansas and Nebraska were organized as territories ...read more