Professor Marable's Scholarship Lives On in Biography
of Malcolm X

by Ann Levin
vol. 36, no. 10

In 1988, Manning Marable was teaching a course in African American politics at Ohio State University when he noticed numerous inconsistencies in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the standard text about the black Muslim leader written with Alex Haley.

Manning Marable (Image credit: Philippe Cheng)
Manning Marable
Image credit: Philippe Cheng

Marable, who would join the Columbia faculty five years later, resolved then to begin what he called “a modest political biography” of the charismatic figure, assassinated in 1965 in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights by rival members of the militant Islamic sect the Nation of Islam.

The 594-page work, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, was released on April 4 and immediately acclaimed as the definitive biography of a misunderstood man who, since his death at age 39, has become a legend. Marable died just days before its publication. He suffered from sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease, and had undergone a double lung transplant last summer.

Marable, the M. Moran Weston/Black Alumni Council Professor of African American Studies and professor of history, political science, and international and public affairs, was the “epitome of scholarly devotion and capable of such balanced, insightful judgment,” said Provost Claude M. Steele. “We are all deeply saddened by this loss and the knowledge that he will not be here to enjoy the acclaim his most recent work will surely bring.”

The tragic timing of his death, at age 60, produced an outpouring of tributes. Eric Foner, who led the search committee that brought Marable to Columbia in 1993 to establish the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS), called Marable “the model of a public intellectual.”

“His scholarship had an amazing range—from broad overviews of African American history to incisive analyses of key individuals like [W.E.B.] Du Bois and, now, Malcolm X,” said Foner, the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History. “He made the institute a place where people of every outlook and every race and ethnicity felt entirely comfortable. There was no party line—just a shared commitment to studying the black experience and relating that history to the world we live in.”

Marable’s colleague Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies and former director of IRAAS, recalled first encountering Marable through his scholarly works, then getting to know him at Columbia and through his work at the institute.

“What distinguished IRAAS was its location in Harlem, its early focus on the social sciences and its core philosophy of creating a space where scholars, students and members of the broader communities of Harlem and New York could engage in genuine debate, dialogue and conversation,” she wrote in a tribute on Blackvoices.com. “The opportunity to work at the institute, to share in and help to build that vision was a dream come true for me. I have never encountered anyone with his singular focus and boundless well of energy.”

Marable’s monumental effort to reclaim the “historical Malcolm” began with a methodical process of figuring out the sources of Haley’s best-selling autobiography. He hired more than 20 graduate students and undergraduates, most from Columbia, to write profiles and abstracts of important individuals and institutions mentioned in the book. He oversaw the construction of a detailed chronology of Malcolm X’s life, with almost daily entries for the last two years of his life.

"Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention" is the result of more than two decades of scholarship.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is the result of more than two decades of scholarship.

He also scoured the Haley archives to reconstruct the “authorial tensions” between Haley and Malcolm X, said Garrett Felber, who got his master’s at Columbia (GSAS’09) and worked on the project. In the end, Marable concluded that the autobiography, released nine months after the assassination, was a “brilliant literary work,” but one that distorted the complex truth about Malcolm X’s evolving beliefs.

Haley, a liberal Republican, had wanted to depict Malcolm X as firmly within the mainstream civil rights tradition, Marable said. And Malcolm X embellished aspects of his own life story, exaggerating “short-lived” criminal exploits to show that redemption was possible through the Nation of Islam.

The book, which offers startling new details about Malcolm X’s life and legacy, is based on extensive interviews with close associates of Malcolm X, including Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and a former New York City police detective, Gerry Fulcher, in charge of wiretapping Malcolm X.

That Marable was able to talk to so many figures around Malcolm X who had never spoken publicly before was a testament to his reputation, said his wife and longtime collaborator, Leith Mullings, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

“He was just so well respected that people came to him,” she said. “It was clear to everyone that Manning had a great deal of integrity. They understood that he was a historian and first and foremost was going to tell the history as he understood it based on the evidence currently available.”

Source materials for the book include FBI files, New York Police Department interviews with witnesses at the Audubon at the time of the slaying, Malcolm X’s prison files, and recently released personal papers housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Those documents include diaries from 1964, when Malcolm X was traveling around the Middle East and Africa, reaching out to Muslim groups and black leaders, and reinventing himself as a revolutionary supporting the rights of oppressed black people around the world.

Based on his research, Marable asserts that two of the three Nation of Islam members who served time for killing Malcolm X were innocent; that the gunman who fired the lethal shot was never charged and is living today in Newark, N.J.; and that the FBI and NYPD may have had advance knowledge of the plot.

“Dr. Marable believed deeply in justice,” said Felber, now a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. “His hope in writing this book was that the case would be reopened and meaningful questions would be raised about the assassination and the complicity of the government and local authorities.”

Marable was a prolific scholar who wrote or edited hundreds of books and articles. Besides serving as founding director of the IRAAS for a decade, Marable established the Center for Contemporary Black History, which publishes Souls, a quarterly academic journal of African American studies. He was also instrumental in the construction of the Web-based Malcolm X Project, which features interviews, government documents and archival footage. Mullings says that even though Marable wrote his manuscripts and email by hand, relying on secretaries to transcribe them, early on he grasped the potential of the Internet as a teaching tool.

His roots as a community activist date back to his high school days in Dayton, Ohio, when he wrote a column for a weekly black newspaper. In 1976, he started “Along the Color Line,” a column of progressive political commentary distributed free to black media and later, online. A self-described democratic socialist, he spoke frequently on behalf of labor, civil rights and social justice organizations, and lectured in a master’s degree program for prisoners at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y.

Marable dedicated the Malcolm X book to his wife, calling Mullings his “constant companion and intellectual compass.” “This work is hers,” he wrote. In addition to his wife, Marable is survived by three children and two step-children. There will be a public memorial service for Marable at 5:30 p.m. on May 26 at the Roone Arledge Auditorium in Lerner Hall.

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