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.
Manning was a radical democrat—with the emphasis on the small “d”—who believed in political participation with a purpose. “Progressives can gain positions within the state, especially at municipal and state levels, which can help fund and support grass roots interests and indirectly assist in the development of a socialist majority,” explained the professor whose columns chronicled the campaigns of Jesse Jackson for the presidency but also local contenders from across the country for school board seats and mayoralties.
Manning broke often with the Democratic Party and encouraged independent poitical endeavors. He sympathized with Ralph Nader’s run for the presidency in 2000, as with his friend and frequent intellectual and ideological ally Cornell West. But, in 2008, Manning made the case for why progressives who had doubts about Barack Obama should back the Democrat for the presidency.
When I was preparing my book on the influence of social-democratic movements in America, The “S” Word (Verso), I consulted and quoted Manning’s observations on the Obama campaign. They were, as was consistently the case with his commentary, grounded in understandings of history both studied and experienced.
Manning had few illusions about Obama. At the same time, he had few doubts about the historical and political importance of the movement that elected the first African-American president.
While Manning identified Obama as a “liberal,” he also observed: “What makes Obama different (from many other liberals) is that he has also been a community organizer. He has read left literature, including my works, and he understands what socialism is.”
The point was not to suggest that Obama was a socialist. Rather, it was to suggest that the senator from Illinois brought a broader range of experience—personal and ideological—to the campaign trail and the presidency than did most liberals.
Manning was hopeful about Obama, but not unrealistic.
“Most of us on the left have taken a position of critical support toward Obama. We have to press him to carry out his own agenda,” he wrote shortly after the 2008 election. “The analogy of FDR is appropriate. But someone has to play the role of A. Philip Randolph, the black socialist leader who attacked FDR from the left and in 1941 forced him to sign an executive order outlawing racial discrimination in factories producing for the war effort that refused to hire black people. Randolph threatened to bring 100,000 black workers to surround the White House. Roosevelt capitulated and signed an order that was the foundation of affirmative action.”
Perhaps he was being idealistic. But part of Manning’s contribution as a public intellectual in the service of democracy lay in his determination to keep the faith—to believe, and to help others to believe, that progress was possible, and that it was still realistic to speak of mobilizing masses of Americans on behalf of radical change.
In one of his finest “Along the Color Line” columns, a missive broadly circulated in the African-American weekly press and online, Manning Marable concluded: “If we can dare to dream politically, let us dream of the world as it should be.”
Photo by David Shankbone