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A provocative new biography of Malcolm X hits bookstores today. It's called "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention." But the author, Columbia University professor Manning Marable, did not live to see the publication of his life's work. He died Friday of complications from pneumonia, at the age of 60.

Marable was the author of 15 books and countless scholarly articles. He founded the Institute of Research in African-American Studies at Columbia, where he was a mentor to countless students. Three of those students gathered in the late scholar's office over the weekend. They were there to tell reporter Janaya Williams why Manning Marable was such an important influence on them, and on African-American research.

Mr. ZAHEER ALI (Doctoral Student, History, Columbia University): If I pull out this drawer right here - government files, over 6,000 newly declassified government files from the FBI, CIA...

JANAYA WILLIAMS: The office is jammed with files; stacks of literary journals; boxes overflowing with documents along the floor, more perched on top of the tall rows of metal cabinets.

Mr. ALI: Here's a file on Elijah Mohammed. And these are thick files, maybe hundreds and hundreds of pages.

WILLIAMS: Zaheer Ali was the main researcher for the Malcolm X biography that Marable had been working on, in one form or another, for decades.

Mr. ALI: He had this massive timeline for the Malcolm X project. It was this huge Excel chart. On the one column was just dates. And then each subsequent column was dedicated to a particular source. So you got to see how each source spoke about a particular event.

WILLIAMS: Ali is just one of a generation of African-American scholars and public intellectuals who came of age under Marable.

Mr. ALI: When I got to campus, the first question you asked - and were asked - is, have you seen Manning? You had to do this. It was almost like a rite of passage.

WILLIAMS: In addition to creating the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Marable also founded the Center for Contemporary Black Studies. He encouraged rigorous scholarship and inquiry around radical historical figures and revolutionary movements.

Doctoral student Elizabeth Hinton is the editor of "Souls," Marable's journal of black culture.

Ms. ELIZABETH HINTON (Doctoral Student/Editor, "Souls"): In conversation with him, he would quote Trotsky and Lenin and Marx and DuBois. And so for people that were interested in a different social vision of the world and wanted to -very much in the spirit of Manning - use scholarship and political theory and historical research to envision a different kind of world, this is the space on campus that he created.

WILLIAMS: Marable's political ideas sometimes put him at odds with his peers. But Robyn Spencer, Marable's first graduate student at Columbia - almost 20 years ago - says he had a way of opening people's minds, and making his work accessible.

Professor ROBYN SPENCER (History, Lehman College): He was funny. He was always laughing. I mean, his smile - I think - was something that we'll all sort of take with us. And he was kind of irreverent, in some ways. You know, he would call Angela Davis "Angie" - which is kind of shocking when you're a graduate student. You're thinking Angela Davis and he's like, oh, yeah, I was speaking to Angie, and she said this and she said that. And he kind of just made everyone accessible. And he made you feel like you could also access those people as well.

WILLIAMS: Marable embraced transformationist politics over nationalism or separatism, the idea that African-Americans could - and should - transform society by changing institutions in partnership with others. His interest in chronicling the black experience across ideological lines led him to exchange ideas with people of all political stripes.

Zaheer Ali remembers the time Marable took him along for a face-to-face meeting with Louis Farrakhan.

Mr. ALI: I was a little nervous because they had never met before. Professor Marable had written very critically about Minister Farrakhan's nationalist politics. And I watched two grown men have an intelligent, critical discussion about the meaning of black life in America. It was an important example of how professor Marable was willing to bravely and courageously engage people with whom he had publicly disagreed, and do it civilly and with integrity.

WILLIAMS: The students who Manning Marable has mentored over the years call his presence on campus nothing short of a revolution. By bringing fringe ideas into the mainstream, Manning Marable found a way to challenge the existing canon, and to create another.

For NPR News, I'm Janaya Williams in New York.

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