- Marxist activist and black nationalist
- Founder of the militant Black Power organization United Slaves
- In 1971, he was arrested for assaulting and torturing two female members of his organization.
- Professor and chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach
- Creator of the "African American" holiday, Kwanzaa
Maulana Karenga was born as Ronald McKinley Everett on July 14, 1941 in Parsonsburg, Maryland. He was one of 14 children, and his father was a Baptist minister and tenant farmer. At age 18, Everett moved to Los Angeles and became active in the civil rights movement. After receiving an associate's degree at Los Angeles Community College, he went on to earn both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree at UCLA. One of Everett's mentors at UCLA was the Jamaican anthropologist Councill Taylor, a Negritudist who preached that traditional black cultures are superior to European cultures. In the early to mid-1960s, Everett changed his name to Maulana Karenga. (Maulana is Swahili-Arabic for “master teacher,” and Karenga is Swahili for “keeper of tradition.”) Karenga quickly established himself as a major figure in the Black Power movement and as a leading “cultural nationalist”—a term that in the '60s served to distinguish Karenga and his followers from the Black Panthers, who were conventional Marxists.
After the Watts riots of 1965, Karenga helped create the Black Congress, an umbrella group that consisted of numerous radical organizations in South-Central Los Angeles. He also helped set up Black Power conferences in several major American cities. And in 1965 Karenga co-founded (with Hakim Jamal) the militant Black Power organization United Slaves (US), which advocated a black cultural revolution and the proliferation of independent black schools, African-American studies departments, and black student unions. United Slaves aimed to “provid[e] a philosophy, a set of principles, and a program which inspire a personal and social practice that not only satisfies human need but transforms people in the process, making them self-conscious agents of their own life and liberation.”
In 1966 Karenga created Kwanzaa, a holiday that urged the establishment of a separate and independent political structure exclusively for African Americans. This holiday is celebrated each year from December 26 through January 1, and its name is a Swahili term meaning “first fruits.” The Official Kwanzaa Web Site says that Kwanzaa's origins lie in “the first harvest celebrations of Africa,” which allegedly “are recorded in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia”—but it does not explain why any ancient Egyptians or Nubians might have held harvest festivals just after the winter solstice; neither does it mention what crops they harvested. And though Kwanzaa celebrants are instructed to use maize in their holiday rituals, maize is a New World plant that was nonexistent in ancient Africa.
Karenga states that Kwanzaa is rooted in “the best in nationalist, Pan-Africanist, and socialist thought.” “I created Kwanza,” he explains, “... to reaffirm our rootedness in African culture and the fact that as Africans we come together to reinforce the bonds between us as a world African community. And to celebrate the meaning and beauty of being African in the world.” In his book Kwanzaa: Origins, Concepts, Practice, Karenga claims that the holiday offers black people “an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”
According to The Official Kwanzaa Web Site, Karenga's holiday was created to: (a) “reaffirm the communitarian vision and values of African culture and to contribute to its restoration among African peoples in the Diaspora”; (b) serve as “an act of cultural self-determination, as a self-conscious statement of our own unique cultural truth as an African people”; (c) foster “conditions that would enhance the revolutionary social change for the masses of Black Americans”; and (d) provide a “reassessment, reclaiming, recommitment, remembrance, retrieval, resumption, resurrection and rejuvenation of those principles (Way of Life) utilized by Black Americans' ancestors.”
Kwanzaa arose out of a cultural philosophy, devised by Karenga, called Kawaida—a Swahili term for “tradition” and “reason.” Karenga explains that Kawaida incorporates the “best of early Chinese and Cuban socialism,” and that its adherents believe that one’s racial identity “determines life conditions, life chances and self-understanding.” When he was asked to distinguish Kawaida from “classical Marxism,” Karenga essentially said that, under Kawaida, blacks hate not only the wealthy, but also whites.
From the outset, Karenga billed Kwanzaa as an alternative to Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions, and he asked his followers to abide by the seven “principles” of Kwanzaa, known as the “Nguzu Saba,” or the “Seven Principles of Blackness.” Rooted in the socialist precepts of parity, collectivism, class consciousness, identity politics, and proletarian unity, those principles are:
- Umoja (Unity): “to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race”
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves” (i.e., race-consciousness and identity politics)
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): “to build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems, and to solve them together” (i.e., socialism and groupthink)
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): “to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together” (code for “buy black”); Karenga describes this principle as “essentially a commitment to the practice of shared social wealth”—a euphemism for communism.
- Nia (Purpose): “to make our collective vocation the building and development of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness” (i.e., identity politics)
- 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 heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle” (Kwanzaa, like Marxism, is based upon a faith in man, not in God. Contrary to traditional monotheism, it worships no god at all. Rather, Kwanzaa deifies people and their ancestors. It substitutes faith in the self and in the collective, for faith in a divine creator. Karenga himself once described Kwanzaa as “an oppositional alternative to the spookism, mysticism and non-earth based practices which plague us as a people.” On another occasion, he described Christianity as a “belief in spooks who threaten us if we don't worship them and demand we turn over our destiny and daily lives” to them. Such a belief system, Karenga asserted, “must be categorized as spookism and condemned.” Karenga has explained that his creation of Kwanzaa was motivated in part by hostility toward both Christianity and Judaism. In his 1980 book Kawaida Theory, for instance, he claimed that Western religion “denies and diminishes human worth, capacity, potential and achievement.” “In Christian and Jewish mythology,” Karenga added, “humans are born in sin, cursed with mythical ancestors who’ve sinned and brought the wrath of an angry God on every generation’s head.”
Notably, the seven Principles enumerated above were precisely the same principles espoused by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the the pro-Marxist terror organization that famously kidnapped the heiress Patricia Hearst in the 1970s.
As a tangible symbol of his seven Principles of Kwanzaa, Karenga appropriated the menorah from Judaism and renamed it with the Swahili word kinara, a candle holder bearing Kwanzaa’s trademark colors of red, black, and green (one blacked candle flanked by three red candles and three green candles). This color scheme was borrowed from Marcus Garvey’s old black nationalist ensign, with black representing the black race, red signifying the blood shed by African people in their quest for liberation, and green connoting the pristine splendor of Africa's landscapes.
Questions have arisen as to why Karenga elected to use Swahili words for the major principles and objects associated with Kwanzaa—given that American blacks are primarily descended from people who came from Ghana and other parts of West Africa, whereas Swahili is spoken thousands of miles away from there, in East Africa. Though The Official Kwanzaa Web Site describes Swahili as a “Pan-African” tongue that is “the most widely spoken African language,” it is in fact a Bantu tongue that includes many words absorbed from Arabic, Persian, and Indian languages—and is spoken by only about 7% of Africa's population. It is likely that Karenga chose Swahili as the language of Kwanzaa because it was the trendy language that the Black Power movement of the 1960s was promoting as an alternative to the language of white oppressors.
Karenga also created a black, green, and red flag of Kwanzaa, which, according to The Kwanzaa Information Center (KIC), “has become a symbol of devotion for African people in America to establish an independent African nation on the North American Continent.” The color red, notes KIC, represents blood: “We lost our land through blood; and we cannot gain it except through blood. We must redeem our lives through the blood. Without the shedding of blood there can be no redemption of this race.”
To further promote racial unity among African Americans, Karenga wrote the Kwanzaa pledge, which reads: “We pledge allegiance to the red, black, and green, our flag, the symbol of our eternal struggle, and to the land we must obtain; one nation of black people, with one God of us all, totally united in the struggle, for black love, black freedom, and black self-determination.”
Along with Kwanzaa's very evident racialism, a palpable degree of anti-Americanism also sits at its heart—as Karenga made plain when he once told a Washington Post interviewer: “People think it's African, but it's not. I came up with Kwanzaa because black people in this country wouldn't celebrate it if they knew it was American. Also, I put it around Christmas because I knew that's when a lot of bloods [a '60s slang term for black people] would be partying.”
In 1969, a major conflict arose between the Black Panthers and Karenga's organization, United Slaves, over the question of which group would control the new Afro-American Studies Center at UCLA. Karenga and his adherents backed one candidate, while the Panthers supported another. As tensions escalated, members of both groups took to carrying guns on campus—a situation that the university administration was afraid to deal with, and thus ignored. The Black Student Union, however, set up a coalition to try and bring peace between the Panthers and the United Slaves. On January 17, 1969, about 150 students gathered in a UCLA lunchroom to discuss the situation. Two Panthers—John Jerome Huggins and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, both of whom had been admitted to the university as part of a federal program that sent high-school dropouts to college—spent a good part of the meeting launching verbal attacks against Karenga. This did not sit well with Karenga's followers, many of whom had adopted the look of their leader—pseudo-African clothing and a shaved head. After the meeting, Huggins and Carter were met in the hallway by George and Larry Joseph Stiner, two brothers who were members of United Slaves. The Stiners pulled pistols and shot the two Panthers dead.
In the aftermath of that UCLA incident, Karenga continued to build and strengthen his United Slaves organization, whose members strictly followed the rules that were laid out in The Quotable Karenga. This book demanded that Karenga's disciples follow “the sevenfold path of blackness,” which required them to “think black, talk black, act black, create black, buy black, vote black, and live black.”
Meanwhile, members of the Panthers and the United Slaves carried out a series of retaliatory shootings that resulted in at least two more Panther deaths.
In the late 1960s, Karenga and his United Slaves were investigated by the FBI's COINTELPRO operation—which was established to counteract the influence of subversive groups—and they were placed on a watch list of dangerous, revolutionary organizations. During this period, Karenga was becoming increasingly paranoid and began to fear that some of his followers were trying to have him killed. On May 9, 1970, Karenga and two trusted allies, Louis Smith and Luz Maria Tamayo, initiated a brutal torture session against a pair of female United Slaves members, Deborah Jones and Gail Davis, who were suspected of disloyalty. A brief passage from the Los Angeles Times describes what happened:
“The victims said they were living at Karenga's home when Karenga accused them of trying to kill him by placing 'crystals' in his food and water and in various areas of his house. When they denied it, allegedly they were beaten with an electrical cord and a hot soldering iron was put in Miss Davis' mouth and against her face. Police were told that one of Miss Jones' toes was placed in a small vise which then allegedly was tightened by one of the defendants. The following day Karenga allegedly told the women that 'Vietnamese torture is nothing compared to what I know.' Miss Tamayo reportedly put detergent in their mouths, Smith turned a water hose full force on their faces, and Karenga, holding a gun, threatened to shoot both of them."
In a trial the following year, Karenga was convicted on two counts of felonious assault and one count of false imprisonment. On September 17, 1971, he was sentenced to serve one to ten years in prison. According to a transcript of Karenga's sentencing hearing, Judge Arthur L. Alarcon read the following from a psychiatrist's report: “Since his [Karenga's] admission here he has been isolated and has been exhibiting bizarre behavior, such as staring at the wall, talking to imaginary persons, claiming that he was attacked by dive-bombers and that his attorney was in the next cell.... During part of the interview he would look around as if reacting to hallucination and when the examiner walked away for a moment he [Karenga] began a conversation with a blanket located on his bed, stating that there was someone there and implying indirectly that the 'someone' was a woman imprisoned with him for some offense. This man now presents a picture which can be considered both paranoid and schizophrenic with hallucinations and elusions, inappropriate affect, disorganization, and impaired contact with the environment.”
During Karenga's subsequent incarceration in a California State prison, United Slaves fell into disarray and eventually disbanded in 1974.
When Karenga was paroled in 1975, he re-established the United Slaves organization under a new structure. He also dropped his cultural nationalist views, converted to traditional Marxism, and in 1976 earned a Ph.D. in political science from United States International University (now known as Alliant International University).
In 1979, California State University at Long Beach hired Karenga to chair its Black Studies Department, a post he continues to hold.
In 1990 and 1997, Karenga was a featured speaker at the Socialist Scholars Conference, which is sponsored each year by the City University of New York’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Notwithstanding the history of acrimony between United Slaves and the Black Panthers, Karenga also spoke at an event that featured Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale—the 17th annual Black Consciousness Conference in November 1996.
In 1994 Karenga earned a second Ph.D., in social ethics, from the University of Southern California.
In 1995 Karenga sat on the organizing committee that authored the mission statement for Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March.
In the summer of 1996, Karenga wrote an article denouncing what he called an “18-month-long spate of Black church burnings” that allegedly had occurred across the United States. He maintained that the only way to address the root cause of these “unspeakable acts of horror and revulsion,” “acts of racism,” and “acts of terrorism,” would be to initiate “a thoroughgoing change in relations of power, wealth and status” in America's “racially hierarchical society.”
Contrary to Karenga's rhetoric, however, it was eventually learned that in fact the incidence of black church fires had increased only slightly, and temporarily, above their historically low levels. Moreover, on a per capita basis, black church fires continued to be significantly less common than white church fires. By the end of 1998, just three of the more than seventy black church fires investigated by the Justice Department could be tied to racial motives. The National Church Arson Task Force likewise found few racial links. It turned out, in fact, that a number of the arsonists responsible for the infamous black church fires were themselves African Americans.
In 1996 Karenga wrote about “the recent revelations of the CIA's pushing drugs and guns in the Black community,” and he called on the federal government “to apologize publicly to the African American community for this immoral, illegal and deadly project.” Further, Karenga demanded that the government change its “unjust and racist” sentencing policy, under which offenses involving crack cocaine (a drug most often used by poor blacks) were penalized more harshly than those involving powder cocaine (whose users were typically affluent whites).
Ultimately, Karenga's claims regarding CIA malfeasance were thoroughly discredited by compelling evidence. His allegations of racism in the criminal-justice system were equally specious. The Congressional Record shows that in 1986, when the strict, federal anti-crack legislation was first being debated, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)—deeply concerned about the degree to which crack was decimating black communities across the United States—strongly supported the legislation and actually pressed for even harsher penalties. Moreover, the vast majority of cocaine arrests in the U.S. were made at the state—not the federal—level, where sentencing disparities between cases involving crack and powder cocaine generally had never even existed.
In 1998, Karenga and United Slaves issued a statement in support of “the Cuban people in their heroic and historic struggle to defend their right of self-determination and to break out of the unjust and immoral economic boycott by the U.S. government.” Added the statement: “[W]e respect the Cuban people for their international service in the interest of liberation, education and health for African people and other peoples around the world. And we also respect them for their ability to achieve so much with so little, in the areas of education, health care and productivity under the most stringent conditions. They offer us a model of the inherent strength, resourcefulness and dignity of a people who will not be broken or defeated.”
In February 2001, Karenga delivered a eulogy at the funeral service of New Black Panther Party leader Khalid Abdul Muhammad, praising the infamous racist and anti-Semite for his commitment to black empowerment.
In June 2001, Karenga wrote a piece in favor of reparations payments to compensate modern-day African Americans for the “horrendous injury” that the “holocaust” of slavery and its legacy had inflicted on blacks of every generation since. “Compensation,” said Karenga, “can never be simply money payoffs either individually or collectively. Nor should the movement for reparations be reduced to simply a quest for compensation without addressing the other four aspects. Indeed, compensation itself is a multidimensional demand and option and may involve not only money, but land, free health care, housing, free education from grade school through college, etc.”
Six days after al Qaeda's September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, Karenga wrote an article explaining that those mass murders were expressions of justifiable Muslim rage over objectionable American policies:
“... [I]t is not the material goods some of us have that they [Muslims] hate the U.S. for, but for attempts to impose the materialism of a consumerist society on them, to turn them into homogenized consumers of a McWorld system. And perhaps it is not that they are against freedom and justice and related values, but against the U.S.-imposed interpretation of this. Perhaps, they resent the arrogance of imposition and the inequities imposed by a globalism that grinds them underfoot and denies them a right of self-determination and security ...
“It was an extreme act of anger, hatred and violence [that] seems under girded by a sense of abuse, oppression and state terrorism for years and decades against poor, less powerful, darker and religiously different people and the asymmetry of suffering these have inflicted. If these people [the perpetrators] were from the Middle East, then, the examples of the U.S. role in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon stand out. But also in other parts of the world, the contras in Nicaragua, the CIA in Guatemala and Chile, and the brutal intervention in Vietnam all speak to a U.S. role that provokes the most severe criticism, anger, resentment and hatred....
“Surely, we can and must condemn what they [the 9/11 hijackers] did, but it is also useful to imagine why they did it from their own perspective and to consider whether others feel similarly, even if they refuse to use such means to make their point. If we did, we might discover that from their perspective and those of people who will not commit such acts but are emphatic with their aims that they did it to: (1) avenge years of state terrorism, mass murder, selective assassination, collective punishment and other forms of oppression by the U.S. and its allies; (2) to demonstrate vulnerability of the U.S. at its crucial centers of power, i.e., financial—Manhattan, military—the Pentagon, and political—Washington, D.C.; (3) to cause the rulers of the country to fear, to be uncertain and to reverse the role of hunter and hunted; (4) to insist on being heard and considered in human, political and military terms; (5) to demonstrate a capacity to strike regardless of the superior strength and technology of the U.S.; and (6) to dramatize and underline in a highly visible way the asymmetry of suffering between the U.S. and the oppressed in the world....
“[W]e must defend without hesitation or equivocation the rights and equal treatment of Arabs, Muslims, Southeast Asians and others who are racially profiled and abused and attacked by the government or private citizens....
“[W]e must challenge the U.S. to review and reconstruct its international policy, especially in the Middle East, so that it is just and equitable. This will be perhaps the most difficult struggle, not simply because of our uncritical commitment to the U.S.' major ally in the region [Israel], but also because of its shared demonization of their opponent and thus the refusal to address their [those opponents'] legitimate claims and their undeserved and asymmetrical suffering.”
Karenga was an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's War on Terror, which he characterized as an exercise in “self-aggrandizement” by the U.S., and as “part of a post-9/11 imperial offensive which carries with it racist and colonial conversations and commitments of ‘crusades’ to protect ‘the civilized world’ against ‘dark and evil nations’ in ‘dark corners of the world.’”
Karenga is the author of a number of books, most notably Introduction to Black Studies—originally published in 1981, with subsequent editions printed in 1993, 2002, and 2010—which is the most widely used introductory text in collegiate Black Studies curricula. He also authored Selections from the Husia: Sacred Wisdom from Ancient Egypt (1984); Kemet and the African Worldview: Research, Rescue and Restoration (1986, with Jacob Carruthers); The Book of Coming Forth by Day: The Ethics of the Declarations of Innocence (1990); Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture (1997); Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings (1999); Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt (2003); and Kawaida Theory: An African Communitarian Philosophy (2004).
Over the course of his career as a professor and activist, Karenga has received numerous awards, including the “National Leadership Award for Outstanding Scholarly Achievements in Black Studies” from the National Council for Black Studies, and the “Pioneer Award” from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Citizenship Education Fund.
In addition to his post as chairman of California State University's Black Studies Department, Karenga also chairs the University President's Task Force on Multicultural Education and Campus Diversity.
 “Hiding Behind the Smoke,” Washington Post (June 18, 1996), p. A 13.
 Deroy Murdock, “Everyday America's Racial Harmony,” The American Enterprise (November/December 1998), p. 25.
 “Hiding Behind the Smoke,” Washington Post (June 18, 1996), p. A 13. “Indiana Man Admits to 50 Church Arsons,” The New York Times (February 24, 1999), p. A 18.
 Richard Cohen, "Class, Not Race," New York Post (November 15, 1995), p. 25.
* The intrepid reporting of Paul Mulshine brought to light much of the information about Karenga's violent and criminal past.