By RUWAN MUNASINGHE

On Oct. 13, 1934, Kwame Montsho Ajamu Somburu (“Paul Boutelle” until 1979) was born in Harlem Hospital. He would go on to live a life dedicated to the liberation of Black people and the working class worldwide. A proud “Black nationalist,” “Trotskyist”, and “scientific socialist”, Somburu traversed across decades, countries, and different sectors of struggle in the fight for a world free of oppression, all the way inspiring countless people with the intensity of his drive forward to a better future for humanity. Though he is survived by innumerable comrades, family, and friends in the struggle that he gave his life to, there is also a worldwide movement behind them able to carry the ideas that Kwame Somburu fought for into the future.

“My father was a child of Harlem,” remarks Asi Somburu, the son of Kwame and Zakiya Somburu. “The Black Mecca, Home of the Harlem Renaissance, the world famous Apollo Theater, Sylvia’s soul food restaurant, several hip-hop pioneers, and many generations of Black families who like ours, came North from Trinidad or Surinam like my father’s parents, or the Deep South like my mother’s parents, and from everywhere else to help build this great nation.

“My father LOVED Harlem. He would tell me stories of how he used to run the streets at all hours of the night, shooting pool or dice, of how my grandfather would blast calypso music in the streets for the summer block parties, of how he saw another son of Harlem, the notorious gangster Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson walk these streets like he owned them, of all the times he himself spoke from corner to corner, against the Vietnam War, in support of Black Liberation or the class struggle, of all the times he saw the great Malcolm X do the same, from corner to corner, mosque to mosque, including that sad winter’s day at the Audubon Ballroom, when Brother Malcolm was taken from us just a few months before his 40th birthday.

“I am blessed to have had 32 years with my father, born at the height of the great depression in 1934, only leave me after more than 81 years of life, warm in his bed and without pain.”

Kwame Somburu began his political career in the Black struggles of the early 1960s. He explained in a 1965 article of The Militant (the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party), “My first awakening was a nationalist awakening, a feeling of pride in being black and a feeling of revulsion and hatred at what this capitalist racist system did and is doing to people of color throughout the world.”

He continued, “Around 1957 I began listening to many militant African and Afro-American speakers from Malcolm X to the non-religious black nationalists. I felt then, as I do now, that black nationalism is necessary to the healthy development of my people.”

In 1960, Somburu met members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), joined the Young Socialist Alliance (the youth group of the SWP), and supported Farrell Dobbs and Myra Tanner Weiss for president and vice president of the United States. Somburu participated in the 1963 March on Washington and sold hundreds of copies of the Pan-Africanist journal Freedomways (founded by W.E.B Dubois and edited by John Henrik Clarke) at this historic event.

Soon afterwards, he became deeply involved in the Freedom Now Party—an independent Black political organization. Somburu cites journalist William Worthy’s writings in the Baltimore Afro-American (which today still operates as AFRO) as being an early inspiration for his life-long advocacy for and efforts to build an independent political organization for Black people. As chairman of the Harlem branch of the Freedom Now Party, Kwame ran on the all-Black Freedom Now Party ticket as state senator. The SWP supported the Freedom Now Party as a step forward in the struggle of Black self-determination.

As a Black organizer, Somburu was targeted by the state. During his Senate campaign, he was arrested twice by Harlem police in 1964 on trumped-up charges. Public gatherings of the SWP and the Freedom Now Party, which he participated in, were broken up by the police. Somburu was singled out in numerous infiltration programs orchestrated by the police and the FBI.[1]

In 1965, when the Freedom Now Party had waned, he joined the SWP. That year he published an article in The Militant entitled “Why I joined the Socialist Workers Party.” In it he wrote, “I have read many works by Leon Trotsky and SWP members, and have learned that the SWP has a consistent record of engaging in independent class politics, is the Marxist organization that has developed the best analysis of Black Nationalism, and has been from the start a firm supporter of efforts to build an independent black political party.”

The SWP had fervently supported Malcolm X. Malcolm spoke several times at the party’s New York City forums and was a subscriber to The Militant. Likewise, Kwame Somburu was close to Malcolm as an activist in Harlem. He explained: “I saw and heard Elijah Muhammad three times along with many other N.O.I. ministers, and read every word in the weekly issues of Muhammad Speaks for over two years. In addition I attended many meetings at Temple #7 in Harlem.

“I was attracted to Malcolm’s intellectual curiosity, humanity, and rapidly accumulated knowledge of diverse and varied types of social injustice worldwide. He was seeking to tell the unvarnished truth and expose the basis of structural inequality. He felt that was the first step in the fight for the true liberation of African Americans, and later, as he became a person of the world, for liberating all of humanity.”

Somburu was present with his nine-year-old son Daryl at the Audubon ballroom on the day Malcolm X was assassinated. He explains his account of the assassination in this video (at 20:56).

Immediately after joining the SWP, Kwame Somburu and the party launched a campaign for Somburu as a candidate for Manhattan borough president in 1965. He was part of a slate of candidates in New York that also included Peter Camejo (a student who would later go on to be an important leader in the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at Berkeley) for president of New York City council, and Clifton DeBerry (a highly important figure in history of Black socialism who was a leader in the SWP and who became one of the first African Americans to run for president of the United States) for mayor.

Somburu used this campaign to expose the absurdities of the capitalist system as it was manifested in New York City. For instance, he spoke on the terrible housing conditions in the city. He said: “In 1961, for example, the Housing Authority built 6000 low-rent apartments, but almost three times that number of low-rent apartments were torn down or converted to high rent. Landlords allow housing to deteriorate, but they keep raising rents.”

He would later go on to run in numerous other election campaigns for the SWP and then Socialist Action. In all of these, Somburu was an embodiment of the principals and tactics of the electoral strategy of the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin. As he explained, “We’re under no illusions about the electoral process. It’s a fraud. There’s no ruling class in the world that would allow you to pry them out of power or vote them out of power. They’ll bring out the troops … We just use campaigns as another means to publicize views. That’s basically it.”

Perhaps his most notable campaign was when in 1968 he became the fourth African American in U.S. history to run for vice president when the SWP ran him and Fred Halstead for a presidential election campaign.

In 1968, Somburu (as Paul Boutelle) and Halstead appeared on the popular TV show “Firing Line” hosted by the American conservative William F. Buckley. Buckley unsuccessfully attempted to use his debating skills to back Halstead and Somburu into corners. Despite trying to patronize Somburu, Buckley found himself embarrassed by Somburu’s stinging rebuttals.

At one point Somburu berated Buckley for representing a system that commits murders, lies, and oppression. Buckley responded, “I represent a country that went to war in order to liberate the Negroes a hundred years ago.” Somburu sarcastically replied, “I know some in Mississippi that would like to hear that. Why don’t you take a trip down there this summer and tell them that they’re liberated. In fact I know some in the outskirts of Chicago that would like to hear too. Or Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section. Walk to Harlem tomorrow and tell us that we’re liberated.”

At this Buckley said, “Put it this way Mr. Boutelle, I’m sure that if I ran for office in Mississippi, I would have more Negroes voting for me than for you. How many votes did you get last time you…” Somburu interrupted, “I’m sure of one thing. That if you went down to Mississippi and told Black people they were free, you would be running and it wouldn’t be for office.”

Halstead and Somburu also visited 10 countries as part of their campaign. This included Vietnam, India, Canada, France and Britain (where Somburu appeared on BBC national news).

Through the 1960s Somburu was organizing against the Vietnam war, particularly in Afro-Americans Against the War in Vietnam (AAAWV). He was also a staff member of the Spring Mobilization Committee To End The War in Vietnam and an assistant to the Rev. James Bevel (who was himself working with Martin Luther King). The committee organized for a nationwide day of action on April 15, 1967—the largest antiwar action in history at the time. The New York action that Somburu helped organize included a march from Central Park to the United Nations.

Specifically, one of his accomplishments was organizing a contingent of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Dakota and Lakota Indigenous communities. It is estimated that 400,000 people marched in New York City that day, including Kwame Ture (whom Somburu invited), Martin Luther King, and Harry Belafonte. Part of this demonstration, as well as a short clip of Somburu making a public speech as a representative of the Black United Action Front of Harlem, is exhibited in the documentary film “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me N*gger”.

Around this time, Somburu was also active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and organized to defend Robert F. Williams in North Carolina and Neville Alexander (the South African Trotskyist revolutionary who, for 10 years under the apartheid government, was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela at Robben Island).

In 1970, Kwame Somburu became chairman of the Committee of Black Americans for Truth About The Middle East. That year, Somburu toured Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria as a guest of the General Union of Palestine Students. They organized funds to run an advertisement in The New York Times that appeared on Nov. 1, 1970. The advertisement was titled, “An Appeal By Black Americans Against United States Support For the Zionist Government of Israel”. It contained over 50 signatures including Grace Boggs, Clifton DeBerry, Rev. Albert Cleage, and Malcolm X’s half-sister Ella Little-Collins. The document stated, “we, the Black American signatories of this advertisement are in complete solidarity with our Palestinian brothers and sisters, who like us, are struggling for self-determination and an end to racist oppression.”

The letter ended with the following proclamation: “WE DEMAND THAT ALL MILITARY AID OR ASSISTANCE OF ANY KIND TO ISRAEL MUST STOP. IMPERIALISM AND ZIONISM MUST AND WILL GET OUT OF THE MIDDLE EAST. WE CALL FOR AFRO-AMERICAN SOLIDARITY WITH THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE’S STRUGGLE FOR NATIONAL LIBERATION AND TO REGAIN ALL OF THEIR STOLEN LAND.”

The advertisement was largely in response to an advertisement that appeared in The New York Times and the Washington Post on June 28, 1970, entitled, “An Appeal by Black Americans for United States Support to Israel.” The advertisement’s appearance was organized by Bayard Rustin and financed by wealthy Zionists. The ad called on Black people to support U.S. policy in “unequivocally guaranteeing Israel’s sovereignty”; 64 signatures were listed, including Martin Luther King Sr. and legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson.[2] In 1975, Bayard Rustin ran a similar advertisement in the Times as director of the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC), which contained signatures of Count Basie and Rosa Parks.

In the early 1980s, Somburu was active in the National Black Independent Political Party (NBIPP). Though this party didn’t survive, it—along with the Freedom Now Party and the  Organization of Afro-American Unity—deserves close attention as another attempt to build an independent Black political organization in the United States.

The first five points in the “Principles of Unity” of the NBIPP constitution read [3]: 

  1. African people in the United States, in effect, constitute an oppressed nation, therefore our struggle must be manifested through a national liberation struggle. 
  2. Historically, African people suffer from racism and/or discrimination all over the world; therefore we must struggle against racism and all concepts of racial superiority. 
  3. Since national oppression, racist superiority beliefs, and capitalist exploitation are consistent characteristics of imperialism, constituting an aggression against our self-determination, the position of The Party must be anti-imperialist.    
  4. African people have suffered capitalist class exploitation which forces us to occupy the bottom strata of society; therefore we must struggle against this and all other forms of exploitation.
  5. The party must have the interests of the masses of African people at the heart of its program.

In the same period, Somburu fought against the Jack Barnes leadership of the SWP as they abandoned Trotskyism and permanent revolution. He was a founding member of Socialist Action. In the 1990s, shortly after the release of the Spike Lee film “Malcolm X”, Somburu traveled to Germany, England, and the Netherlands to lecture on Malcolm X, the film about his life, and in defense of Black nationalism and socialism. He also participated in many Socialist Action forums on the Black struggle and liberation politics.

Somburu’s marriage to Myrna Mondesire ended in divorce; their son is Daryl Boutelle. Later in life, he married Zakiya Somburu, who died in 2010.

Muralist Mike Alewitz, a friend of Socialist Resurgence and a former-member of the SWP who was expelled by the Barnes leadership, told Socialist Resurgence about the first time he met Somburu: “I will never forget when, as a teen-aged socialist, I was a guest at his home during a conference in New York. It was around 1970 or 1971. We drove through the streets of the South Bronx, then a neighborhood blighted by capitalist neglect. We pulled up next to a small child, who looked at this odd pairing quizzically.

“Kwame just rolled down the window and shouted to the kid, ‘We’re going to take the money from the rich people and give to the poor!  We want to make a revolution!’ We received a clenched fist salute in response as we rolled on. For me, the brief exchange exemplified Kwame’s qualities as a genuine revolutionary—able to communicate and inspire a toddler, and shortly thereafter do the same for the experienced leadership of a revolutionary party. Driving through the landscape of neglected buildings and rubble, I could not have been prouder.”

David Walsh, a member of Socialist Resurgence and former-member of the SWP and Socialist Action, reflected on when he used to stay with Somburu and his family when he was in Socialist Action. He said, “Both he and his wife were brilliant. And his son Asi was such a great young guy. At the time he was only about nine years old but I was always impressed with how they included Asi. The family always included Asi in an adult manner and gave him the freedom to participate if he wanted or not. That was totally different from the way I was brought up in an Irish Catholic working family.”

Walsh, a retired rail worker, also recalled asking Somburu (who worked as a taxi driver in both New York and San Francisco) about his job: “One time I asked why he always chose to drive a cab. Because that’s a brutal job! He said he would take 30 Socialist Action newspapers to work and he would propagate them with anyone and everyone that got into his cab … So he would sell our paper in his cab! He would always talk with them. And he would write down books that they should get from the library.

“He said, ‘don’t believe what anybody tells you. I could be lying. You have to think for yourself and decide for yourself’. And then he’d recommend a book. He loved to talk to people. He loved people. He even loved people that disagreed with him. He was always a patient teacher and a patient learner.”

Asi-Yahola Somburu, now a grown man, reflected on his father: “He wanted me to see the world not only through my own eyes but through the eyes of people the world over, to feel their pain, their joy, their triumphs, as connected with my own.  Through this, I learned empathy for the human condition, both for what I could feel and see with my own eyes, growing up in East Oakland and San Francisco, and what I could not see first hand, in distant places like South Africa, Mexico, France, or Palestine. Father taught me that those lives, those struggles, those stories of sacrifice, life and love were just as important as my own.

“He never wavered in his love and devotion to his family, or to the timeless and universal struggle for self-determination and liberation,” Asi said. Kwame Somburu deserves the highest appreciation as a luminary for oppressed people. Although he isn’t with us today, the ideas he fought for will live forever. They are indeed “timeless and universal”.

Photo: Kwame Somburu speaks at the Conference on the Legacy of Leon Trotsky in 2008. Mural in the background is by Mike Alewitz.

We would like to make a special acknowledgement and thank Asi Somburu for assisting and encouraging the completion of this article.  See: https://unapologeticallybeige.com/2017/10/13/a-kings-birthday/ 

NOTES

[1] “African Americans and the Presidency: The Road to the White House,” Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz. 83-84

[2] “Black Power and Palestine,” Michael Fischbach. 63-70

[3] “The National Black Independent Party: Political Insurgency or Ideological Convergence?” Warren Holmes. 127-128