A voice for Black liberation and democracy

Lee Sustar looks at Manning Marable's wide-ranging contributions to African American scholarship and the Black liberation movement.

Manning MarableManning Marable

ANYONE WHO studies the Black liberation movement and seeks to renew its struggles will be saddened by the untimely passing of Manning Marable, the Columbia University professor who combined wide-ranging scholarship with an active commitment to social transformation.

Marable, who died April 1 as a result of lung disease at the age of 60, was well known for the more than 20 books he authored or edited. They include How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, a careful study of how the U.S. economy has, and continues, to benefit from slavery and racism; Race, Reform and Rebellion, perhaps the single best overview of the civil rights movement; and the biography W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, a political overview of an intellectual giant of African American politics in the first half of the 20th century. He also published several collections of scholarly articles and essays such as Black Liberation in Conservative America and Speaking Truth to Power: Essays on Race, Resistance and Radicalism.

In an era when academia has become increasingly specialized and remote from everyday political concerns, Marable always sought to link his considerable academic output to the struggles of working people in general and African Americans in particular.

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EVEN AS he took the prestigious post as founding director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University--he later became professor of Public Affairs, Political Science, History and African-American Studies and the founder of the Center for Contemporary Black History--Marable continued to write a column distributed free of charge to Black-owned or -oriented newspapers.

The column, launched in 1976, was called "Along the Color Line," a reference to Du Bois' prediction that the great problem of the 20th century would be that of the color line. Marable's articles combined the systematic approach of his academic work with a call to action. Typical was a column published in August 2000 on the exploding incarceration rates for people of color:

For those young people who have never been to prison before, African Americans are nine times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prisons. For youths charged with drug offenses, Blacks are 48 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prison. White youths charged with violent offenses are incarcerated on average for 193 days after trial; by contrast, African-American youths are held 254 days, and Latino youths are incarcerated 305 days.

What seems clear is that a new leviathan of racial inequality has been constructed across our country. It lacks the brutal simplicity of the old Jim Crow system, with its omnipresent white and colored signs. Yet it is in many respects potentially far more devastating, because it presents itself to the world as a system that is truly color-blind.

The Black freedom struggle of the 1960s was successful largely because it convinced a majority of white middle class Americans that [Jim Crow=] was economically inefficient, and that politically, it could not be sustained or justified.

The movement utilized the power of creative disruption, making it impossible for the old system of white prejudice and power to function in the same old ways it had for decades. For Americans who still believe in racial equality and social justice, we cannot stand silent while millions of our fellow citizens are being destroyed all around us. The racialized prison industrial complex is the great moral and political challenge of our time.

But Marable didn't just write about prisons. He regularly met with prisoners and taught courses to them, making the very short list of Ivy League professors who lecture behind bars.

It was part of his political commitment, which included participation in initiatives such as the Black Radical Congress and membership in various left organizations, including the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and the Working Families Party. He frequently spoke at movement events sponsored by organizations such as the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, and he was a mainstay of the effort to save the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther wrongly convicted of murder who was sent to Pennsylvania's death row in 1981 and has been behind bars ever since.

As a speaker, Marable was anything but a dry academic. He often began his presentations by finding common ground with his audience, then drawing them into seeing the world from a new angle--raising questions, offering facts and pressing his case home with passion.

Marable often drew on his knowledge of U.S. history and politics to raise the level of discussion and sharpen the debate. For example, at a meeting held just prior to President Bill Clinton's 1994 military invasion of Haiti to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, Marable reminded the audience that the Cuban nationalists who looked to the U.S. for support against their Spanish colonizers in the 1890s ended up with the U.S. controlling their country.

It was possible to disagree with Marable on fundamental issues--such as the attitude socialists should have towards the Democratic Party--and still have a warm and comradely relationship. I had the good fortune to hear him speak many times in New York during the 1990s, and although just his acquaintance, was always greeted like an old friend as we discussed the issue of the day.

My favorite memory of Manning is when he met with student activists at Columbia in 1992, a few hours after his interview with university administrators over the position he would later take.

Those of us in the audience were expecting a presentation about African American politics. Instead, we were treated to a careful dissection of the U.S. political system and the case for the proportional representation elections used in many European parliamentary systems--a method, he argued, that could help break the two-party stranglehold on U.S. politics.

Finally, he got around to discussing his prospective job at Columbia, and told the activists that he was coming to further a political project--one that included working closely with people like them. With a big smile, Marable explained that he had new latitude to link his scholarship to his political priorities, thanks to what he called his "bourgeois academic credentials."

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BUT THE stream of books and articles that got him the Columbia job weren't mere vehicles for career advancement. They were a crucial contribution to our understanding of the struggle for Black liberation in American and the dynamics of race, class and capitalism. Whether or not you accept all of Marable's theoretical framework or formulations, his work has the strength of taking on the big questions most academics avoid.

For example, in Race, Reform and Rebellion, published in 1984, Marable was blunt about the limitations of liberal Black Democratic politicians who had by then begun to be elected to serve in Congress and as big-city mayors:

In short, the Black elite calls for federal initiatives to provide employment for the poor, but will not advocate a clearly socialist agenda which would severely restrict the prerogatives of private capital. They denounce the growing trend of racist violence, but they will not see that such violence is a manifestation of a more profound crisis within the capitalist political economy. The elite has no viable solutions for the proliferating and permanent Black reserve army of labor, or the deterioration of the inner cities. They are simply ready to administer the crisis, but are ill-prepared to resolve it.

A few years later, Marable was among the first scholars to take account of the rise of moderate Black Democratic officeholders who didn't have their origins in the civil rights or Black Power movement, referring to them as "post-Black" politicians. In 2008, he situated Barack Obama within that moderate camp. Nevertheless, he argued for a vote for Obama in the context of building pressure on him from the left.

Compounding the tragedy of Marable's early death is the fact that he will not be with us to discuss and debate what will almost certainly be seen as his major work, his new biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

In an interview in the International Socialist Review, Marable explained why he took on the project: "There has been an active suppression of Malcolm's work and his intellectual legacy for more than 40 years. And the suppression has been deliberate and for various reasons." Those reasons included police and government cover-ups of the facts of Malcolm's assassination and the widely shared desire to bury Malcolm's turn to revolutionary politics.

For Marable, his study of Malcolm was the capstone of a political engagement that began with his own radicalization as a young militant, one he shared with others of his generation, as he told the ISR:

[W]e were attracted to Marx because it helped to illuminate and make clear the objective material circumstances of poverty, unemployment and exploitation in Black people's lives. Which is why we became socialists or Marxists, because we understood that there could not be a path toward Black liberation that was not simultaneously one that challenged the hegemony of capital over labor.

Manning Marable's work will stand as a valuable contribution to a new generation that wants to take up that challenge. He will be greatly missed.