No series of articles on the living legends of Black History would be complete without mentioning Dr. Ron Maulana Karenga – a titan among titans in Africalogical thought, organizational capability, and Afrocentric epistemology. From his association with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committees and the Black United Front of the Sixties, to the eulogy of Khalid Abdul Muhammad and participation in the Million Man March, Dr. Karenga has become a leader in the revolution by his example and empathy for the cause of Afrocentricity.
While no number of written words can express our appreciation for Dr. Karenga’s work, this short article will attempt to do so by introducing our readers who may not know of him to this living legend.
Maulana Karenga was born on July 14, 1941 as Ronald McKinley Everett in Eastern Shore, Maryland.
The early life of Ronald Karenga highlights for us the importance of a household that values work ethic and education. As a child, young Ronald attended the all Black Salisbury HighSchool. Upon graduation, he left Maryland to attend Los Angeles City College (LACC), where he would become the first African-American student body president and an avid student of the Swahili language and African history. Like most men and women who come into Afrocentricity and Black Consciousness, awakening begins gradually with study and ultimately becomes a way of thought and life. For Karenga, this process began here.
By the time he had completed his studies at LACC and moved on to UCLA in 1960, Karenga had already developed a relatively sophisticated understanding of African culture and history.
By 1963, Ronald Everett’s transformation into a Pan-African was complete, marked by his shedding of the last name Everett. After reading Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya, Ronald adopted the term ”Kareng’a” (meaning “entirely free from missionary influence, both in educational and religious matters.”) as his last name.
In that same year, Martin Luther King JR had led his famous March on Washington and delivered the now immortal “I Have A Dream” speech and four Black children were killed in the infamous Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
These ground breaking events no doubt led Ron Karenga to participate in Civil Rights demonstrations and fundraising efforts for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1964.
Karenga demonstrated incredible insight in realizing that the way forward that Dr. King and other integrationists proposed was neither appropriate for Black men and women in the United States, nor was it rational. He began to distance himself from the more liberal integrationist groups, and declared himself a Black Nationalist.
The fate of Ron Karenga would be sealed on February 21, 1965 – the day that Malcolm X was assassinated.
The Circle of Seven and Controversy
Shortly after the success of the CIA backed plot to assassinate Malcolm X, Karenga, along with the cousin of Malcolm X, Hakim Jamal, began a study and discussion group called the “circle of seven.” The group established a magazine – US – to promote the idea of black cultural unity as a distinct national identity.
During the time, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was also active both on campus and around the country, and had earned the attention of the United States Federal Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Federal agents used misinformation and forged letters supposedly sent from one organization to the other to create a fatal rivalry between the two factions with the hopes that both would wipe each other out. The plot was nearly successful when, in 1969, gunfire erupted between members of the US organization and the Black Panther Party on campus that resulted in the deaths of two Panthers: Bunchy Carter and John Huggins.
According to this article, the events that transpired were as follows:
” On January 17, 1969, Jerome Huggins, 23 and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter 26, were gunned down by Karenga’s men, George P. and Larry Joseph Stiner, Harold Jones, Donald Hawkins and the triggerman Claude “Chuchessa” Hubert. Larry Stiner was wounded in the shoulder from a shot squeezed off by Alprentice Carter, and three of them made their way back to the get-away car driven by their FBI handler Brandon Cleary also known to them as Control One.
According to a police agent code-named Othello (most likely either D’Arthard Perry, a.k.a. Ed Riggs or Louis E. Tackwood), Cleary drove three of the assassins back to the FBI building in Los Angeles, where they met in a 14th floor office for debriefing. The FBI then facilitated gunman Claude Hubert’s escape as Hubert was subsequently transferred to an east coast office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in New York City. Hubert has never been apprehended and is believed to be currently living under Bureau cover.
As for the Stiner brothers, they were ordered to turn themselves into police whereupon the Bureau would assist them when things quieted down. After their reported surrender, the Stiner brothers were tried and convicted of the murders of Carter and Huggins. They were sentenced to San Quentin, a maximum-security prison.
Four years later, as “model prisoners”, the two were transferred to the minimum-security section of the prison. The FBI made good on their promise and facilitated their escape in 1974, during a conjugal visit arranged for both. Aided by a black prison guard the two were literally allowed to just walk off, and their handlers in the FBI assisted in providing them safe transit and haven in Guyana, South America.
One has to wonder what Larry Stiner knows, and if his services were utilized further in nearby Jonestown, as he was in Guyana during that time. His brother George eventually left Guyana, and his current whereabouts are an FBI secret. Larry however, changed his name to Watani, married, and moved to neighboring Suriname.
After civil conflicts threatened his family and great new life, he called his handlers with a request to return to the United States in exchange for granting political asylum for his family. This scumbag traitor and FBI snitch returned in 1994 and was double-crossed by his masters, who arranged for him to finish out his life sentence.”
While it can be said that none of our organizations then could have been prepared for the tactics of COINTELPRO, the incident nonetheless underlined the division in the African American community, even among revolutionary organizations. Unfortunately, this would not be the last of the controversy surrounding the US organization.
According to this article;
“In a 1971 court testimony, one of Karenga’s accusers detailed two days during which she said Karenga and three associates brutalized her and another woman. The women, Deborah Jones and Gail Davis, were both former members of a group Karenga still heads, called The US Organization. Jones testified during the trial, but Davis was unavailable and believed to be in Jamaica recovering from injuries suffered during the torture, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Karenga was convicted for attacks on Jones, including charges of felonious assault and false imprisonment, that happened in 1970 at Karenga’s home in Inglewood, Calif.
According to a Los Angeles Times account of testimony published at the time of the trial, Karenga and the other men forced the women to remove their clothes, and beat them with an electrical cord and a karate baton. The men put a hot soldering iron in one woman’s mouth and against her face, and they squeezed one woman’s big toe in a vise, the Times reported. Karenga’s former wife, Brenda Lorraine Karenga, testified he sat on one woman’s stomach while another man forced water into her mouth through a hose, according to the Times.
Jones said during the trial that Karenga initiated the attacks because he suspected her and Davis of trying to poison him with “crystals.”
Times accounts of Karenga’s trial reported three other men participated in the attack, but the reports don’t specify which man carried out each act.
A judge sentenced Karenga in 1971 to one to 10 years in a California state prison. News reports vary on whether Karenga served four or five years of the sentence. A state report on Karenga’s mental state presented at his sentencing described his behavior as “bizarre” and “confused and not in contact with reality,” the Times reported.
Karenga denied the charges against him during court hearings, the Times reported.”
It is not clear whether Ron Karenga had direct participation in either incident, but following his release, Dr. Karenga adopted the first name “Maulana”, restructured his US Organization, and began a new path forward. Since then, he has consistently demonstrated a devotion to his cause and his people indicative of a truly transformed and empathetic human being.
It is not the opinion of the writer that the above incidents should diminish our reverence for this living legend of Black History. However, it is important to take into account both the positive and negative aspects inherent in the human condition.
Kwanzaa and Kawaida
One of the most noteworthy achievements of Dr. Karenga is the invention of Kwanzaa, the annual African-American holiday celebrated from December 26 until January 1. Kwanzaa, a name derived from the Swahili matunda ya kwanza, or first fruits of the harvest, celebrates the Nguzu Saba—the seven principles of African Heritage. These seven principles are:
- Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in God, our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Since the establishment of the holiday over 40 years ago, the number of participants has grown to 2 to 4 million people in the United States and Canada on average, to over 20 million at the peak of the holiday’s popularity.
Perhaps a lesser known aspect of Maulana Karenga’s legacy is the introduction of “kawaida”.
According to the Us Organization website, Kawaida ”is the continuing quest to define and become the best of what it means to be both African and human in the fullest sense.” The philosophy is especially focused on what are known as the seven areas of culture: history; spirituality and ethics; social organization; political organization; economic organization; creative production (art, music, literature, dance, etc.) and ethos. In his revolutionary work, Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge, Dr. Molefi Kete Asante cites a clear explaination for the purpose of kawaida from Dr. Karenga himself:
” Kawaida maintains that it is the fact that Blacks have a popular culture rather than a national culture which stands at the heart of the cultural crisis they suffer. The problem of popular culture begins to become clear by its very definition.
Popular culture, Kawaida posits, is the unconscious, fluid reaction to everyday life and environment. In other words, it is social thought and practice defined and limited by its unconsciousness, fluidity, and reactiveness.
By contrast, national culture is the self-conscious, collective thought and practice through which a people creates itself, celebrates itself, and introduces itself to history and humanity.”
As a testament to both the necessity and importance of the Kawaida project, thousands of adherents participate in the annual Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies (KIPAS) Seminar – the most recent of which was held in Los Angeles, and covered topics ranging from HIV/AIDS to Troy Davis, Trayvon, Police, Vigilantes and Racial Targeting.
The discussions held during these conventions, and amongst all adherents of the prinicples of kawaida are in keeping with a true Afrocentric perspective. Dr. Karenga writes:
“the first thing that makes Kawaida unique and distinct from all other philosophies and forms of thought is its embrace of Africa as a moral, spiritual and intellectual ideal, in a word, as its cultural ideal.
This is to say, Kawaida engages and embraces African culture as the paradigmatic and indispensable source of models, meanings and ways of being moral, spiritual, intellectual and social, in a word, of being human in the world. Thus, at every time and turn, on every critical question about life and living, we ask, what does Africa have to say about this?
Others might seek answers to such critical questions from other later ancient lands: Israel, Arabia, China, India, Greece, Rome, etc., but we ask Africa.”
Dr. Maulana Karenga Today
Although not without controversy, Dr. Maulana Karenga remains a giant in the pantheon of great Black scholars, thinkers, organizers, and influencers. Molefi Asante named him one of the 100 Greatest African Americans in 2002.
Each year, hundreds of students receive his tutelage as the Chair of the Africana Studies Department at California State University in Long Beach, and as the Director of the Kawaida Institute for Pan African Studies.
During Black History month, 2013, Dr. Karenga was invited to Florida A&M University’s Black History Month Convocation. In this article, he is quoted as saying “We must interpret our own history. We must in fact hold our history sacred for there is not history more holy, no people more sacred and no narrative more wanted to be told or taught than our own.”
Dr. Maulana Karenga can be reached at 3018 West 48th Street Los Angeles, CA 90043-1335, or by calling (323) 299-6124.
His published books are regularly featured as required reading material for members of United Black America, and include the following books:
- INTRO.TO BLACK STUDIES
- The Book of Coming Forth by Day: The Ethics of the Declarations of Innocence
- Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt
- Kemet and the African Worldview: Research, Rescue and Restoration
- The African American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community & Culture
- Selections from the Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt
- Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings