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Backers say past of founder doesn’t diminish Kwanzaa

By: PERRY SWANSON THE GAZETTE
November 22, 2006
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A local seminar by the man who founded the Kwanzaa holiday will not include discussion of his conviction for torturing a female member of his black nationalist group, organizers said Wednesday.
Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga went to prison in 1971 after a trial during which a woman said he beat her and another woman with an electrical cord. The holiday was founded in 1966. Kwanzaa celebrates concepts such as creativity and faith, and has attracted millions of participants, mostly black Americans and Africans. Kwanzaa lasts for seven days beginning Dec. 26. Karenga will hold a seminar Dec. 9 at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to discuss “the principles and practice of bringing good into the world.” Anthony Young, a Colorado Springs man who helped organize Karenga’s visit, said Karenga’s criminal past shouldn’t detract from his positive contributions. “It doesn’t disturb me so much about what happened in those early years of the civil rights movement about our leaders having been jailed for various things,” Young said. “The real test is exactly what types of contributions are made to our society.” Representatives of two organizations involved in the visit expressed concern this week after learning of Karenga’s past. Organizers of the event met Tuesday and decided to maintain their invitation for Karenga to speak, said Tom Hutton, UCCS spokesman. The university is providing a room for the seminar. Karenga didn’t respond to a message left at his office at California State University, Long Beach, where he’s a professor in the Black Studies Department. A biography of Karenga on the “Official Kwanzaa Web Site” doesn’t mention his criminal conviction, and it’s been left out of nearly all of the thousands of news articles nationwide mentioning his name during the past couple decades. Last year, Karenga declined to discuss his past with the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger. “I’ll only talk philosophy,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. In 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 Organization Us. 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. “Vietnamese torture is nothing compared to what I know,” Karenga allegedly told the women, the Times reported Oct. 7, 1970, shortly after Karenga’s arrest. 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. After his prison term, Karenga went on to lead Kwanzaa to worldwide observance and receive two doctoral degrees, according to his Web site. He is a leader in establishing black studies departments in U.S. universities and has written numerous scholarly articles. He wrote, edited or contributed to 13 books on file with the Library of Congress, including the “Handbook of Black Studies” released this year. The Colorado Springs Citywide Kwanzaa Celebration Committee, which organized Karenga’s visit, issued a statement Wednesday saying Karenga will discuss only Kwanzaa during his visit. “He was not invited to, nor does he intend to speak on, anything other than celebrating, educating the concept of Kwanzaa and inspiring people of all races and backgrounds to incorporate the principles into their daily lives,” the statement said. Kwanzaa is based on seven principles including unity, selfdetermination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Young wouldn’t say whether he thinks Karenga should discuss his criminal conviction. Several local organizations sponsored Karenga’s seminar at UCCS, including the Colorado Springs branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. NAACP President Rosemary Harris said she knew nothing of Karenga’s criminal history until a discussion began among organizers after questions from The Gazette. Harris said she has celebrated Kwanzaa since 1990 and found it valuable for building a sense of community among black Americans and Africans. Harris said the information about Karenga’s past doesn’t affect her view of the holiday he founded. “It doesn’t diminish, for me, Kwanzaa, because Kwanzaa is not based on any kind of charismatic personality or a personality of any sort, but more on community,” she said. UCCS spokesman Hutton issued a statement saying the university supports the celebration of Kwanzaa but was “unhappy” to learn of Karenga’s criminal behavior. “The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs condemns the past actions of Dr. Karenga, and while recognizing that he has served his prison time, we will ask that he publicly denounce violence and torture,” the statement said. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0187 or perry.swanson@gazette.com. Gazette researcher Annie Mullin contributed to this report.
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