“Instead of leadership from above, democracy from below.”- Dr. Manning Marable
A few weeks ago, I had dinner with Dr. Manning Marable and his wife, Leith Mullings, whose voluminous books, papers and op-ed columns comprise a critical collection of today’s discourse on race in America.
We had just completed a talk at the Hue-Man Bookstore – a Harlem landmark where he was held in high regard. He was in a buoyant mood that night. He remarked that it was always a thrill speaking to a Harlem audience because the exchange was always incredibly honest and raw – a kind of no holds barred foray into the complex issues of race that confound America. He was excited about new projects on the horizon, the upcoming release of his anthology on Malcolm X and new books that he planned to pen. His speaking calendar was full, his new twitter account was growing, he had a full teaching schedule and there was no sense that he was at all deterred by recent health challenges.
Ever the productive scholar and engaged public intellectual, Dr. Marable authored more than a dozen seminal books on race and politics over the course of his career – works that offer penetrating insights into issues of racial inequality, black leadership and threats to American democracy.
There was always something special, something distinguishing about Manning’s work. His scholarship not only provided a deep and rich analysis of the historical roots of the Black freedom struggle but connected that history to the challenges of the present day. In so doing, his work has provided a context for considering some of our nation’s most distressful social inequalities and set forth a framework to guide the efforts of today’s civil rights activists.
Outside the classroom and beyond his scholarly work, Dr. Marable was an incredibly energized and passionate activist. He was a Co-Founder and National Co-Chair of the Black Radical Congress. He worked to give voice to the progressive movement of the Black Left and fought against racism, sexism, homophobia and class antagonisms. He took on issues such as the prison industrial complex and police brutality, and advocated for repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
He authored the popular syndicated column, “Along the Color Line,” which ran in Black newspapers throughout the country. He also served as co-chairperson of the Committees of Correspondence, a democratic socialist organization. But, this certainly is not an exhaustive list of his work.
What I appreciated most about Dr. Marable was that he rejected the presumption that academics need to maintain a social distance from activists. He was not at all interested in being a scholar who merely produced scholarship high in the ivory towers of academia. Instead, he was deeply committed to producing work that had relevance and significance to problems on the ground. In my own work, I have tried to shape and model a career path informed by these important ideals. As a civil rights lawyer, I have maintained a steadfast commitment to writing and to producing scholarship informed by the problems and crises I seek to address in the courtroom.
Dr. Marable spent a good deal of the last decade working on a highly-anticipated anthology of the life of Malcolm X. That book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention sheds new light on what we know about the radical icon of the civil rights movement. For decades, our understanding of Malcolm X’s life has been largely informed by his Autobiography which was co-authored with Alex Haley. But that autobiography was likely censored by what both Malcolm and Haley deemed an appropriate way to memorialize Malcolm X’s place in history – a claim that Marable also makes in his book. Dr. Marable’s book, released today, fills gaping voids in the existing historical record.
Impeccable and objective historian that he was, Dr. Marable combed through Malcolm’s life – and tens of thousands of pages of previously un-reviewed government documents. He was in close contact with Malcolm’s daughters and conducted extensive interviews of those within Malcolm’s inner circle, spoke with former law enforcement officials and family members, and examined prison, hospital, grand jury and medical examiner records. In the end, new details emerged about Malcolm’s life – meetings with foreign officials to help identify broader foreign support for the domestic civil rights movement and, most significantly, information about those responsible for Malcolm’s death.
Dr. Marable came to believe that Malcolm X’s true assassin, the one who fired the “kill-shot” that took his life, has never been charged or brought to justice. That man, according to Dr. Marable, lives very prominently in New Jersey. The scholar activist that he was, Dr. Marable was deeply committed to bringing Malcolm’s chief assassin to justice and hoped that the book would create the conditions necessary to bring about a reopening and re-examination of the case.
While some may view this Malcolm anthology as sitting at the top of his scholarly apex, the truth is that all of his work made an enormous and immeasurable contribution to American democracy. He will forever occupy a unique place in the Black freedom movement and our nation is all the better because of his work.
Kristen Clarke is Co-Director of the Political Participation Group at LDF. For the last 14 years, she worked closely with her mentor Dr. Manning Marable on a number of projects including 2 books: Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America’s New Leadership and Seeking Higher Ground: The Hurricane Katrina Crisis Race and Public Policy Reader (2007). Dr. Marable’s example of scholarship and activism has long inspired her path as a civil rights lawyer.