On March 16, 1991, two weeks after the tape of Rodney King’s brutal beating by Los Angeles police went public, a 15-year-old African American girl named Latasha Harlins walked into an L.A. market to buy orange juice. As she approached the counter, she put the juice in her backpack with one hand while holding money in the other.

Fuzzy security footage shows how their failed transaction ends: Harlins picks up the orange juice, which has fallen on the floor, and places it on the counter. She turns to walk away. But before she can get three feet she suddenly crumples to the ground, because the shopkeeper has pulled out a shotgun and fired it into her back.

When Alex Haley set out to write Roots, he spent seven years searching for the name of the ship that brought his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, from Gambia to Annapolis in the 1760s. He traveled to Africa and met with griots—oral storytellers trained to recite the history of their village—who recounted detailed genealogies of the previous two centuries. Corroborating these accounts with British military logs, Haley was able to narrow Kunta’s abduction to 1767, and the ship to the Lord Ligonier, bound for Annapolis in July of that year. It is here that Roots begins.

A black comic paces the stage, microphone in hand, studying his audience. “You white folks up North been voting for a long time,” he begins. “But in the South, we just barely get a chance to vote. You see, down South, if you colored and want to vote, they make you take a test…on nuclear physics…in Russian. Then, if you pass the test, they say, ‘Hey, boy! You can’t vote! Because if you can read in Russian, you must be a Communist!’”