Many tributes will be paid in coming days to our friend and comrade from so many struggles, Manning Marable. The accolades will be rich in sentiment and content, the praise high, and appropriately so.
The great historian of the African American political experience who as a Columbia University professor helped to establish the Institute for Research in African-American Studies and the Center for Contemporary Black History,” Marable was an academic heavyweight whose scholarship earned international recognition—and whose new book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which will be published Monday by Viking, will reconfirm his status as a groundbreaking historian. His death Friday at age 60, after a long battle with lung disease, was brutally timed, as the diligent scholar’s greatest moment of national prominence was about to arrive with the publication of a biography not just of a man, Malcolm X, but of movements and the transformation of a nation.
Had he lived, Manning would have used that moment, as he always did, to talk not just about his own work but about the many struggles to which he was devoted,
As one of America’s truest public intellectuals, Manning always engaged with the great debates of his days: debates about race, class, gender, war and elections. The record of that engagement is remarkable, and it remains in our possession, in the form of his “Along the Color Line” columns that appeared for years in African-American weekly newspapers (and eventually on the web).
Manning and I shared a passion for weekly newspaper writing. We both started contributing to our local papers as schoolchildren: he in his native Dayton, I in rural Wisconsin. When he was 17, his mother encouraged Manning to attend the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., after he was slain on April 4, 1968. She wanted her son “to witness a significant event in our people’s history.”
Manning made the trip as the “Youth Speaks Out” columnist for a weekly that served Dayton’s African-American community. Years later, he would write about these experiences in a fine collection of his columns and essays, Speaking Truth to Power: Essays On Race, Resistance, And Radicalism (Westview).
“With Martin’s death, my childhood abruptly ended,” Manning explained. “My understanding of political change began a trajectory from reform to radicalism.”
Even as he embarked upon an educational path that aimed toward academia—gaining an undergraduate degree at Earlham College, a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a PhD in American history from the University of Maryland—Manning remained a contributor and columnist for African-American weeklies and other publications. He was, as well, a prominent participant in the New America Movement, Democratic Socialists of America, the New Party, the Black Radical Congress and the Movement for a Democratic Society, which he chaired.