Marcus Alexis, one of the nation’s most distinguished economists, died Wednesday due to complications during surgery. He was 77.
According to friends and colleagues he thought of himself as a regular guy, but his legacy proves that he was far from ordinary. “There wasn’t anybody I ever spoke to who didn’t say how brilliant he was,” says Earl G. Graves Sr., who as a teenager met Alexis when they both worked for the Brooklyn Public Library.
Alexis taught at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois for 29 years. As a former chairman of the economics department and a professor emeritus at the Kellogg School of Management, Alexis was influential in encouraging minorities to consider economics as a profession. He played a central part in growing the numbers of minority faculty at Northwestern University according to Donald Jacobs, emeritus dean of Kellogg.
Despite his intellect, as an undergraduate Alexis dreaded a course in economics at Brooklyn College in the early 1950s. He went from dreading that course to becoming the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Minnesota in 1959. From there he went on to serve as commissioner, vice chairman and acting chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission under former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
“We were proud and felt confident that we had a very capable person representing the interests of all citizens and African Americans in particular,” says Graves, chairman and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine. When Graves started the Black Enterprise Board of Economists, Alexis was one of the first people that came to mind. Alexis was a founding member of the BE Board. It was the first and only such board of a national business publication that was composed of African Americans who were former Federal Reserve governors, Nobel Prize laureates, presidential administration officials and other distinguished scholars. The board’s purpose was to make policy recommendations to correct the economic status of African Americans on a national and international basis. The board’s recommendations have been studied by the last five presidential administrations and government agencies.
“When he was not at a board meeting it was not as spirited,” Graves says.
In 1985, Alexis was appointed a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and became chairman five years later. Despite his continual interest in areas of general economics and public service to his country, he was passionately concerned with the growth, equity, and income distributions for black people.
“While the welfare and economic progress of African Americans was his main concern, he was not narrowly focused on black economic development,” says Andrew Brimmer, who was appointed the first black governor of the Federal Reserve Board under John F. Kennedy and one of the founding members of the BE Board of Economists. Brimmer says that he was intently focused on national transportation and regulation of the airlines.
Margaret Simms, a fellow at Washington D.C.-based Urban Institute, says as a member of the BE Board of Economists, a group who often held different opinions about economic issues. Alexis always held the courage of his convictions.
“He used humor to deflect heat and helped keep our arguments from getting out of hand,” says Simms, also a member of the BE Board of Economists.
Marcus was an integral founding member and inaugural chair of the National Economics Association, an organization for black economists that formed after the American Economic Association neglected to feature black economists on its annual program in 1969.
“Other black economists held him in extreme high esteem,” says William Spriggs, another BE Board of Economists member, and professor and chair for the department of economics at Howard University. “He was dedicated to training others, giving them the tools [to succeed], and mentoring people. He played a direct and important role in making sure we had black people in the field of economics.”
Alexis is survived by his wife Geraldine; daughter Hilary; two sons, Marcus Alexis II, and Sean Alexis; and three grandchildren. Visitation will occur June 5 from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. at The Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, California. The funeral will be held at Mills College Chapel in Oakland June 6 at 10:30 am.