Maulana Karenga

Maulana Karenga Biography

Writer, Civil Rights Activist, Educator (1941–)
An African-American professor of Africana Studies, activist and author, best known as the creator of the pan-African and African-American holiday of Kwanzaa.


Maulana Karenga was born on a tenant farm in Parsonsburg, Maryland, in 1941. At age 18, he moved to Los Angeles and became involved in the Black Power movement. In the 1960s, he created the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa, honoring African heritage. In 1971, he was arrested and served time in prison for assault. He later earned two doctoral degrees and authored several books on African studies.

Early Life

Activist and author Maulana Karenga was born Ronald McKinley Everett on July 14, 1941, in Parsonsburg, Maryland. He was one of 14 children of a Baptist minister and tenant farmer, who employed his family to work in the fields. At age 18, Everett moved to Los Angeles, California, where he attended Los Angeles Community College and became active in the Civil Rights Movement.

After earning his associate's degree, Everett earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. While pursuing his doctorate, he taught African culture classes and changed his name to Maulana (Swahili-Arabic for "master teacher") and Karenga (Swahili for "keeper of tradition"). He rejected the Eurocentric view of America and advocated a Black Nationalist philosophy.

Creating Kwanzaa

After the Watts riots of 1965, Karenga helped establish the Black Congress among residents of the Watts district to help restore the community. This action led to the formation of US, a community organization calling for a cultural revolution among blacks. US was instrumental in building independent schools, African-American studies departments and black student unions. Karenga also helped set up black power conferences in several major U.S. cities, providing blacks with a platform for social change.

In 1966, Karenga created Kwanzaa, a pan-African holiday based on African agricultural activities that encourage blacks to celebrate their cultural roots. As racial disturbances spread across the country in the 1960s and '70s, Karenga urged the establishment of a separate African-American political structure. He simultaneously worked with the major political leaders in California and across the country to help rebuild community relations after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

Controversy and Conflict

In the late 1960s, US and Karenga were investigated by the FBI's COINTELPRO operation—established to counteract the influence of subversive groups—and placed on a watch list of dangerous, revolutionary organizations. At this time, US was engaged in a violent conflict with the Black Panther Party for supremacy in the African-American community. This led to a 1969 shootout at UCLA, in which two Panthers were killed.

By 1971, many African-American leaders rejected Karenga's overbearing manner, philosophy of black separatism and chauvinist attitudes. That same year, he was arrested and convicted of assaulting a female US member and was sent to prison. Soon after, the US organization fell into disarray and disbanded in 1974.

Later Years

After his release from prison, Karenga admitted that US had made mistakes, which weakened the movement and compromised its ability to change with the times. Afterward, Karenga went back to school and earned two doctorate degrees. He then began to embrace Marxist principles of class struggle and encouraged blacks to work together toward common goals. He has played a key role in developing programs that have defined black identity and helped many African-Americans connect to their cultural roots, both in the academic world and local communities. Karenga credits previous African-American leader such as W.E.B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Malcom X, Mary McLeod Bethune and Martin Luther King, Jr. for much of his transformation.

A prolific writer, Karenga has authored numerous scholarly articles and books, including Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics and the authoritative text Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture. Karenga has served as chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of California at Long Beach and became chair of the President's Task Force on Multicultural Education. After the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that followed the beating of Rodney King by police, Karenga once again became a voice of healing. In 1995, he sat on the organizing committee and authored the mission statement of the Million Man March. He continues to be a major voice in the African-American community.

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