Manning Marable's Living Legacy

An explosive new biography of Malcolm X is only a sliver of the late Manning Marable’s legacy. And it might help change history.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2011
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As a black historian, the question that came to me was, “How can the authentic history of black people be brought to life?” By “authentic” I mean a historical narrative in which blacks themselves are the principal actors, and that the story is told and explained largely from their own vantage point.
— Manning Marable,
Living Black History

Slow down, slow down,” the affable man with the bushy graying Afro said to Zaheer Ali, a Harvard graduate who was rattling off all the administrative things he had to do in order to matriculate at Columbia. “What are your research interests?”

Ali gathered himself. He had come to Marable’s office in Schermerhorn Extension on a tip from a trusted source. Six months earlier, Ali was in a record store in Times Square when he spotted the sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, then a visiting scholar at Columbia. Ali introduced himself to Dyson, whom he recognized from TV, and Dyson agreed to read Ali’s Harvard thesis on Islam and hip-hop. Later, over dinner, Dyson told Ali, “You’ve got to talk to Manning.”

Now, seated across from Marable, Ali said, “I’m interested in doing a history of Temple Number 7 in Harlem.” That was the Nation of Islam mosque where Malcolm X was minister from 1954 to 1964.

Marable’s eyes brightened, and he smiled his underbite smile.

“You have to come here,” he said.

Ali did. It was 1999, and Ali entered the alternate universe of IRAAS, where research topics that “were on the periphery of what scholars would pay attention to,” such as CORE or the Black Panther Party, were treated as the important and relevant subjects that they actually were. Here, black history was the country’s foundational narrative, “the core thread of the American experience,” in the words of Marable’s student Stephen Lazar ’06GSAS.

“Professor Marable helped us frame our work so that it spoke to the central issues in the field,” Ali said recently in the office of the Center for Contemporary Black History, a research center founded by Marable in 2003 to examine black politics, culture, and society. “And it helped legitimatize the work academically.”

In the summer of 2000, Marable hired the technology-savvy Ali to help him develop a multimedia study project on Du Bois’s 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk in conjunction with the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning. This led to conversations about doing a similar project on Malcolm X.

“In 2001, we began the Malcolm X Project (MXP), which was organized around gathering materials for the multimedia version of the autobiography,” said Ali. “We started interviewing people who knew Malcolm and worked with him, and that laid the early foundation for the Malcolm X biography.” Marable, always a generous provider of opportunities, funded students’ attendance at Columbia’s Oral History Summer Institute, run by Mary Marshall Clark; and when Louis Farrakhan, who was appointed minister of Temple Number 7 after Malcolm’s death, agreed to meet with Marable, who over the years had been critical of Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, Marable brought Ali with him.

“It was an incredible meeting,” Ali said. “It lasted eight hours. Minister Farrakhan called Dr. Marable ‘a giant.’ We came back later and did a five-hour oral history interview.”

By meeting with members of the Nation of Islam, Marable and his team of some 20 student researchers were able to obtain a batch of old, decaying reel-to-reel tapes of Malcolm’s speeches in Temple Number 7. Marable sent the reels to a sound archivist, who rescued as much material as was possible.

“That provided a lot of insight into the kinds of speeches Malcolm gave while he was in the Nation that no one had ever reported on,” Ali said. “Dr. Marable would say, ‘You know, the MXP, it’s a way of life.’” Ali laughed. “It was like adventures in black history. This was living history.”

After Marable’s death, Ali appeared on the major networks, talking about his mentor and Malcolm X, who, like Marable, died just before the publication of his book. (Whereas Marable saw and held the finished product, Malcolm X did not see the final Autobiography — a red flag for Marable, who believed that the book was posthumously edited to the tastes of the book’s coauthor, the liberal Republican integrationist Alex Haley.) Invariably, Ali’s TV interviewers turned to the assassination.

“Professor Marable had many questions in terms of irregularities surrounding Malcolm’s death,” Ali said. “For instance, typically, there would be two dozen police officers assigned to the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm was speaking. On that day, there were two. And why did it seem that the police rushed to wrap this case up in the nice, neat narrative of the Nation of Islam versus Malcolm X? Dr. Marable suggests in the book that this was maybe to protect their assets — their informants and agents who were in both organizations.

“Then there is Talmadge Hayer’s affidavit. Of the three people who were convicted of the assassination — Hayer, Thomas Johnson, and Norman Butler — Hayer is the only one to have openly admitted his involvement, and at his trial he claimed that the other two men were not involved. But they all served time. Johnson died in 2009. Butler was paroled in 1985. Dr. Marable did speak with both Butler and Johnson, and felt the evidence suggested they were innocent. They were not caught at the scene; they were picked up a week or two after. Following the trail left by Hayer, who in a 1978 affidavit to attorney William Kunstler named his co-conspirators, Dr. Marable tried to track down who these other people were. By researching public records and aliases, he identified a person who is still alive and known in New Jersey. And that’s in the book.

“This person, whom Dr. Marable names, was later involved in a bank robbery with two accomplices. The accomplices were prosecuted. He wasn’t. And it seemed to Dr. Marable that his record was cleaned up.”

Eric Foner was convinced.

It was 1993, and Foner ’63CC, ’69GSAS was chair of the search committee charged with finding a director for a new African American studies program at Columbia. One name kept popping up: Manning Marable, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, a renowned scholar and institution builder whose 1983 study of political economy, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, became a touchstone for a generation of black intellectuals. He earned his PhD in history from the University of Maryland in 1976, taught at Cornell and Fisk, was founding director of Colgate University’s Africana and Latin American Studies Program, and, after that, chair of the Black Studies Department at Ohio State University. Then he went to Boulder, where he got Foner’s call.

“Manning said, ‘Look. You’re in New York City — the institution should be geared to Harlem,’” Foner said recently. “Harvard’s program was geared to literature and culture. Manning was interested in public policy, history, and political science. He was a prolific and impeccable scholar who had a powerful vision of what IRAAS could become, and he rose to the top of our list.”

Marable accepted Columbia’s offer, and introduced himself to the university in his job talk in Schermerhorn Extension. His topic of choice was a controversial and little-understood black revolutionary who didn’t get much play in academia.

“For him to come in and give a talk on Malcolm X was very bold,” said Robyn Spencer ’01GSAS, who was in the audience that day. “It said that this is a serious historical subject, that this person had an impact, not just on black people, but on American history, politics, and culture.” Raised by working-class parents in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where “the New York Times was not even available,” Spencer was in many ways an atypical graduate student and had spent her first two years “finding my way at Columbia, figuring out the language, and how to be.” She’d been studying American history, and was interested in post–World War II black social protest. “As someone who was working on the Panthers, I’d felt a little marginalized: Was this really history?” Then she saw Marable. You couldn’t miss him. “He looked like Frederick Douglass,” said Spencer, now an assistant professor of history at Lehman College, with a laugh. “He had this presence, and you wanted to know more.”

Then Marable talked about Malcolm X.

“He kept calling him ‘Malcolm,’ almost as if he knew him,” Spencer remembered. “It was a personal talk, and highly intellectual.” Marable also spoke about other things: incarceration, crack cocaine, structural inequality, and the challenge of transforming the relationship between Columbia and the community.

Spencer had been waiting for this. She asked Marable to be her adviser. He agreed, making her his first graduate student at Columbia. This was around the time of the Clarence Thomas hearings, when, as Spencer recalls, “black community internal politics were on public display. Race loyalty versus gender loyalty: Was feminism relevant to black women?” Marable had already answered the question emphatically in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America in a chapter titled “Groundings with My Sisters: Patriarchy and the Exploitation of Black Women” — a point not lost on Spencer. “To have a male scholar say that feminism was a legitimate part of the black political tradition, and not a side issue or a corrosive agent for distraction or something that white supremacy was trying to do to hinder black resistance, was revolutionary.

“At the same time,” Spencer added, “Manning was open to critical engagement. He wasn’t doctrinaire. It’s not that he wasn’t confident, self-assured, and moving through the world with a sense of his own intellectual weight, but he still managed to solicit your opinion. He tried to dismantle some of those hierarchies, tried to struggle against his own socialization, and challenged you to struggle against yours.”

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
— James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

Eighteen years after Spencer and Foner listened to Marable’s job talk, they returned to celebrate his life. It was May 26, 2011, and the Roone Arledge Auditorium in Lerner Hall was packed with those who knew Marable best, and many more who had been inspired by him. Zaheer Ali was there. So was Russell Rickford. So was Kristen Clarke. Malcolm X researchers Garrett Felber ’09GSAS and Liz Mazucci ’05GSAS were there. Mayor David Dinkins made it. Congressman John Conyers of Michigan sent a telegram. Marable’s distinguished colleague, Michael Eric Dyson, had come up from Georgetown. And, assembled in the first rows, Marable’s family members — including Leith Mullings; his sister, Madonna; and his three children and two stepchildren — provided, in their graciousness and modesty, a key to the man that was beyond any text.

After an opening benediction from University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis, Madonna Marable stood and sang “Amazing Grace,” a request from her late brother. Then, from the podium, came an extraordinary outpouring of appreciation. President Lee C. Bollinger called Marable “an academic hero who will stand forever.” Provost Claude Steele spoke of Marable’s “old-fashioned hard work and fearless inquisitiveness.” Eric Foner praised him as “the consummate public intellectual.” To Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature and African American studies at Columbia, Marable was a “sheer force of nature” who chronicled better than anyone the “epic, painful, but beautiful struggle for freedom.” Dyson, who had defended Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention in a debate with Amiri Baraka on Democracy Now!, called his friend “a disciplined scholar” and “a great man.” For Russell Rickford, Marable was “America’s postcolonial Du Bois.” And Zaheer Ali repeated his teacher’s sweet refrain: “I’ve got the best job in the world; I get to teach black freedom every day.”

One of Marable’s children, Sojourner Marable Grimmett, then got up with her brothers and sisters. Her voice trembling, “Soji,” as her father called her, made a final appeal to the audience. “Our dad was not only amazing in his work but truly amazing as a father,” she said. “That’s the type of legacy that we want to leave. Be amazing.”

At the end, everyone was asked to stand. Madonna Marable, accompanied by pianist Courtney Bryan ’09GSAS, sang the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The voices rose, and for a moment, it seemed, Earth and Heaven did ring.

“Dear Honorable United States Attorney Eric Holder,” began the letter that Alvin Sykes had mailed, coincidentally, on Manning Marable’s birthday.

Sykes, a compulsive reader who had educated himself on civil rights law in the public library, was the man behind the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, legislation named for the young black teenager from Chicago who was tortured and murdered in Mississippi in August 1955 for reportedly saying, “Hey, baby” to a white woman. In 2005, Sykes convinced U.S. senator Jim Talent, Republican of Missouri, to introduce a bill that would create a unit inside the Justice Department to investigate old crimes from the civil rights era. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the bill into law.

Now, having read Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Sykes was following the playbook by which he got the Till case reopened in 2004. In his letter to Holder, he outlined the technical legal grounds for reopening the case of Malcolm X.

On May 17, four days after mailing the letter, Sykes drove 65 miles to Topeka, Kansas. In the car beside him was his friend, Kansas state senator David Haley, who is the nephew of Alex Haley. The two men were heading to an event at the Topeka Ramada commemorating the anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. The keynote speaker was Eric Holder.

After the attorney general’s address, Sykes sought out Holder, and the two men shook hands. According to Sykes, Holder, without any prompting, told him that he had personally received Sykes’s letter and that the DOJ was reviewing it. Sykes left Topeka feeling hopeful.

“I expect it will take a while,” Sykes said in June. “Months at least, because of the potential involvement of state law enforcement in addition to the FBI. But overall, I feel confident that there will be an investigation.”

You might call it living history.

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