The Founding Director

Dr. Manning Marable was one of America’s most influential and widely read scholars. Since 1993, Dr. Marable had been Professor of Public Affairs, Political Science, History and African-American Studies at Columbia University in New York City. For ten years, Dr. Marable was the founding director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, from 1993 to 2003. Under Dr. Marable’s leadership, the Institute became one of the nation’s most prestigious centers of scholarship on the black American experience. In 2002, Dr. Marable established the Center for Contemporary Black History (CCBH) at Columbia, an advanced research and publications center that examines black leadership and politics, culture and society. CCBH has been home to a number of scholarly projects, including the ongoing Malcolm X Project (MXP), which serves as the foundation for this blog and his posthumous biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

Prof. Manning Marable, an ebullient teacher and institution-builder who embodied the reciprocal possibilities of scholarship-activism, and a Du Boisian intellectual who sought in the black past lessons for the radical transformation of American democracy, died on April 1, 2011 at the age of  60.

Dr. Marable was a prolific scholar whose labor in the arenas of history, political science and social criticism inspired popular and academic audiences. He was a “race man” in the best sense of the tradition—“our grand radical democratic intellectual,” in the words of philosopher Cornel West. His wellspring of love for black folk nourished a passion for democracy and a vision of Africana studies as a crusade for the material and spiritual liberation of all oppressed people. Marable’s deep knowledge of the African Diaspora made him a force in the field of black history; his courage and progressive politics made him a treasure for “the grassroots.”

For Dr. Marable, “living black history” was more pilgrimage than principle. His journey began on May 13, 1950 in Dayton, Ohio. Born to James and June Morehead Marable, schoolteachers who enforced a regimen of U.S. and world history books, the young bibliophile soon discovered the gift of historical imagination. Acutely conscious of race matters, he was further politicized by the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was among the first mourners to arrive at the Atlanta church that hosted King’s funeral. (He covered the event for Dayton’s black newspaper.) A high school senior at the time, he perched on the steps of Ebenezer Baptist in the predawn shadows to await the masses.

A precocious student, he completed his bachelor’s in 1971 at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana (while leading the black student union) and went on to earn his master’s (1972) and Ph.D. (1976) in history at, respectively, University of Wisconsin, Madison and University of Maryland, College Park. Between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, Dr. Marable served on the faculty of Tuskegee Institute, University of San Francisco, Cornell University, Fisk University, Colgate University, Purdue University, Ohio State University, and University of Colorado, Boulder.

As a scholar who traversed the disciplines of history, political science and sociology, Dr. Marable grounded his work in the black American experience while exploring the larger African Diaspora, traveling to Kenya, Tanzania, Cuba, South Africa and Brazil. He developed political and academic contacts throughout the black world, seeing the remaking of racialized societies as the primary task of the engaged intellectual. Armed with the theories of Du Bois, C. L. R. James and Antonio Gramsci, he mastered political economy, emphasizing material solutions to social inequality and exposing the interlocking shackles of race and class.

During the first half of his career, Dr. Marable headed the Race Relations Institute at Fisk, the Africana and Latin American Studies Program at Colgate, and the Department of Black Studies at Ohio State. However, it was his directorship of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies, which he founded in 1993, that marked his most significant personal and political transitions.

Facing the sudden acceleration of sarcoidosis, an illness he had battled for years, and increasingly devoted to the socially redemptive power of political ideas, he crafted the Institute in the image of Du Bois’s Atlanta University project. Under Dr. Marable’s stewardship, the Institute married scholarship and social transformation, launching initiatives to bolster the case for African-American reparations, fight the specter of racialized mass imprisonment, and reclaim the radical vectors of Malcolm X’s legacy. Meanwhile, Dr. Marable cultivated two generations of scholars, activists and students, discovering in each individual a unique genius for advancing the cause he lovingly described: empowering the black masses to reclaim their agency and “return to their own history.”

Dr. Marable wrote prodigiously. The legal pads he dispatched in longhand became the masonry of a scholarly edifice that included more than 30 books and edited volumes, as well as hundreds of articles in academic and popular journals. From the Grassroots, Blackwater, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, Race, Reform and Rebellion, Beyond Black and White, Let Nobody Turn Us Around  (with Leith Mullings), The Great Wells of Democracy, Living Black History, and now, Malcolm X, anchor the shelves of countless students and circulate endlessly in prison yards, their covers curled and shabby, their wisdom pristine. Committed to class-conscious analysis rendered in straightforward prose, Dr. Marable also  produced and distributed free of charge, a public affairs column—“From the Grassroots” (later “Along the Color Line”)—that for three decades reached a vast readership through the black press, reinvigorating Du Bois’s legacy of political commentary and agitation.

Much of Dr. Marable’s energy was spent building—and not merely interpreting—the movement for racial justice. As he observed, “It is only when we stand against the current, confronting the powerful forces of prejudice and inequality, that the tools of scholarship become meaningful.” Some of his most rewarding experiences came through his involvement with the Institute of the Black World in the 1970s (an association that enabled him to chauffeur—and thus interrogate and debate—the great Pan Africanist historian Walter Rodney). He participated in the National Black Political Assembly, the National Black Independent Political Party and the Democratic Socialists of America in the 1980s and the Committees of Correspondence in the 1990s. His long record of leadership on the left included his role as co-founder of the Black Radical Congress in 1998 and his participation in the 2001 United Nations World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa.

From Jamaica to Cuba to Sing Sing Prison, Dr. Marable lectured. He made frequent media appearances on programs like Democracy Now! He served as founding editor of Souls, a journal of black history, politics and culture. He established Columbia’s Center for Contemporary Black History. He created archives and digital resources for teachers and researchers. He served on the board of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. He received many commendations, including the 2005 National Council for Black Studies Ida B. Wells—Cheikh Anta Diop Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Leadership in African-American Studies, as well as two honorary degrees: John Jay College of the City University of New York (2006); and State University of New York, New Paltz (2000).

Dr. Marable was a generous mentor. A Marxist feminist who was also a “Malcolmite”; a black history savant with pop culture tastes (“You can’t handle the truth!” was one of his stock phrases); a dissident social scientist who remained faithful to the political promise of the hip-hop generation, he brandished these identities with passion and grace, convincing his pupils that they, too, could achieve a more perfect whole. Ultimately, that eclecticism reinforced his vision of what social history and critical theory might accomplish: the construction of a liberation movement that shatters social barriers based on color, class and gender.

Dr. Marable is survived by his wife, the anthropologist Leith Mullings; his three children, Malaika Marable Serrano, Sojourner Marable Grimmett, and Joshua Manning Marable; two stepchildren, Alia Tyner and Michael Tyner; a sister, Madonna Marable; his mother, June Morehead Marable; three grandchildren and an extended family in New York, Ohio and Tuskegee.