Manning Marable: Scholar, Activist, Visionary

Remembering the life's work of a great mind dedicated to racial and economic justice.

By Jamilah King Apr 04, 2011

It’s a bittersweet irony that Dr. Manning Marable passed away just three days before publishing one of his life’s greatest works. The prolific scholar and activist, who died Friday at the age of 60 after complications from pneumonia, had spent two decades working on what will ultimately be his last book, "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention," which was released this morning. The work reportedly offers a deeply complex look at a life that’s most popularly known through Alex Haley’s autobiography or Spike Lee’s biopic. 

But what’s was also important about Marable’s four decades as a public intellectual was his commitment to situating the struggle for racial and economic justice within a global framework. In an interview given shortly after the September 11 attacks, Marable painted a disturbing portrait of the regressive legislation that followed.

"When you think about the fact that not too long ago the African National Congress was defined by our government as a terrorist organization…when you think about liberation movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua…you see the great danger to civil liberties and to the pursuit of legal justice in this country."

Marable’s decades’ long crusade for justice undoubtedly inspired generations of activists, writers, and scholars alike. In recent days he’s been mostly remembered for his tireless work as an activist and institution builder. At the time of his death, Marable served as the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, and had previously led the ethnic studies programs at several other colleges and universities. Michael Eric Dyson wrote at The Root:

Marable’s huge hunger to tell the truth about black suffering could never be satisfied. In a relentless stream of articles, essays, newspaper columns and books, he detailed the burdens of race and class and how these forces — along with gender, age and sexual orientation — ganged up on black folk and mugged us at every turn, robbing us of our dignity and our right to exist without being ambushed by inequality and injustice.

John McMillan, one of his former graduate students, wrote at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic:

One thing I remember from that day is how vigorously he stressed the fact that he saw himself as both a scholar, and an activist.  For him, the two vocations were inseparable.  What’s more, he wanted me to know that when he became the founding director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) a few years earlier, he’d envisioned it as fundamentally a community resource.  And by "community," he pointed out, "I don’t mean just Columbia, or even Morningside Heights."  He gestured toward the window of his 6th floor office, which afforded views to the north and the east.  "We’re not in Morningside Heights!  We’re in Harlem!"

Shortly after Marable’s passing, the NAACP also remembered paid respect to his legacy.

"Dr. Marable’s contributions to the struggle for freedom of African Americans will never be forgotten," NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous said in a statement. "Dr. Marable brought one of the keenest intellects of our age to the contemporary conversation on race in America.  As an academic he was never afraid to speak his mind, and as an activist his words carried the gravitas of a published author. His life was dedicated to the struggle, and he will be sorely missed."