Maulana Karenga was born Ronald McKinley Everett on July 14, 1941 in Parsonsburg, Maryland. He moved to California in 1958 where he studied at Los Angeles City College (LACC) and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). At LACC, he became involved in campus politics and was the first African American study body president. He was active in the civil rights, African independence, and peace movements. He also chaired the Los Angeles chapter of the Afro-American Association.
Karenga transferred to UCLA, earning a B.A. (cum laude, 1963) and an M.A. (1964) in political science with a specialization in African Studies. After a year of working on his doctorate, he left UCLA to work in the Black Freedom Movement. At UCLA he had begun to develop a philosophy of radical cultural and social change called Kawaida, which embraces some of the essential teachings of activist-intellectuals he studied, including Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Sékou Touré, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon, and Amílcar Cabral.
Karenga stressed revolution as both cultural and political. He argued that cultural revolution precedes political revolution and makes it possible by transforming consciousness and forging the commitment to struggle. In the context of the cultural and political transformation called “Back to Black,” Karenga changed his European name, “Ron Everett,” to an African name, Maulana Karenga, which means “master teacher” and “keeper of the tradition.” In 1965, after the Watts Revolt, Karenga created the organization Us (us African people) and structured it as a cultural and social change organization, with a paramilitary unit called Simba Wachanga (The Young Lions). Us engaged in programs of political and cultural education, organizing, institution-building and social service.
In 1965, using his knowledge of African culture and languages, Karenga developed the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles) as a key value system for Black life and struggle. In 1966 he created Kwanzaa, a seven-day, African-American and pan-African holiday celebrated from December 26 through January 1, which celebrates family, community and culture. Karenga and Us played a major role in Black intellectual and political culture since the 1960’s, including the movements of Black Power, Black Arts, Black Studies, Black Students, ancient Egyptian studies, reparations, and the Million Man March/Day of Absence, for which Karenga wrote the Mission Statement.
In 1971, Karenga was convicted on charges of assault against members of his organization which he called “trumped up” and “politically motivated.” Karenga consistently maintained his innocence and argued that he was one of many victims of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, known as COINTELPRO, which attempted to “discredit, disrupt and otherwise neutralize” all radical Black leadership. Us and Karenga were cited in FBI documents as major targets for this repression. After what he calls his “political imprisonment,” Karenga returned to his doctoral studies and earned a Ph.D. in political science at United States International University (1976) and another in social ethics at the University of Southern California (1994). He currently is professor and former chair of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach. He remains an activist-scholar, chairing Us and the National Association of Kawaida Organizations and serving as executive director of both the Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies and the African American Cultural Center, Los Angeles.