Kwame M.A. Somburu (1934-2016)
Kwame Somburu was born in New York’s Harlem Hospital in 1934 as Paul Boutelle, but changed his name in 1979. He died of kidney cancer on May 3, 2016 in Albany, NY. His father, Anton Boutelle, was an electrician; his mother, Ann May Benjamin, worked as a seamstress. A proud Black nationalist, socialist, atheist, and anti-imperialist, Kwame combined political activism with running for public office as an independent candidate.
Kwame sold the Great Books of the Western World series door to door, drove a New York City cab for years and years, and later went back to school and became a public school teacher. He always saw working people as the ones capable of running a democratic society.
Kwame Somburu giving a talk.
In the 1960s, he was active in the Committee to Aid the Monroe Defendants, which included Robert F. Williams, an African-American Korean War vet who set up a local National Rifle Association club as a way to train and defend his community against the Ku Klux Klan. Forced to flee the United States to avoid being prosecuted on trumped-up kidnapping charges, the Williams family represented an alternative to the pacifist wing of the civil rights movement. Williams’ book, Negroes with Guns, (1962) was influential, particularly to the Black Power component of the movement.
Present when Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, Kwame was active in a number of Black organizations: secretary of the Black United Action Front of Harlem, a member of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and chairman of the Harlem Freedom Now Party. Kwame participated in the major Black Power conferences of the 1960s and when the National Black Independent Political Party developed in the early 1980s, he joined that too.
An early opponent of the war in Vietnam, he was the founding chairman of Afro-Americans Against the War in Vietnam. For the huge anti-Vietnam War rally on April 15, 1967 he organized contingents of Sioux Indians, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans.
As an internationalist, he was active with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the U.S. Grenada Friendship Society. He chaired the Alexander Defense Committee, which was organized to defend Dr. Neville Alexander, a South African political activist who spent 11 years in Robben Island Penitentiary. He also chaired the Committee of Black Americans for Truth About the Middle East and in 1970 toured Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria as a guest of the General Union of Palestine Students.
In 1964, as a candidate of the Freedom Now Party, he ran for State Senate from Harlem. But when the party was unable to continue, he joined the Socialist Workers Party and ran for Manhattan borough president in 1965, for state attorney general in 1966, for U.S. vice president in 1968, and for mayor of New York in 1969. After he moved to the California Bay Area in 1973 he ran for Congress a couple of times and for mayor of Oakland.
When William F. Buckley interviewed the SWP candidates for president and vice president in 1968, at a time that the SWP was on the ballot in 19 states, Kwame pointed out the violence of the U.S. government, beginning with the slaughter of Native Americans. Buckley said, “I represent a country that went to war to liberate the Negroes a hundred years ago.” Kwame responded, “I know some people in Mississippi and Alabama 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, and Brooklyn—Bedford Stuyvesant…”
Buckley smugly replied, “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…” Kwame rebutted, “I’m sure of one thing, if you went down to Mississippi and told Black people they were free, you would be running, and it wouldn’t be for office.” (See video of the interview.)
Well read on U.S. domestic and foreign policy, Kwame was noted for quips that summed up [a] particular brand of U.S. capitalism in its Manifest Destiny. He remarked, “If it weren’t for crime and lies and terrorism and massacres, there’d be no United States.”
Kwame identified politically as a socialist of the Trotskyist variety. He spoke about Black rights and socialism on Harlem street corners, in London’s Hyde Park, at community meetings, and at the UN General Assembly’s 44th Committee on Decolonization. As a television guest on the William Buckley, Joey Bishop, and Dick Cavett shows, he was always on the offensive. From 1965-1983, he was a member of the Socialist Workers Party, but broke with the leadership as their policies became bizarre. He later joined Socialist Action and, subsequently, the Socialist Workers Organization.
Living in Albany, New York, close to his son Asi, he maintained his activism, attending conferences and opposing U.S. intervention. Having quit school at 16 because he was bored with being indoctrinated with “Christianity, Capitalism, and Caucasianism,” he was always reading, always learning, and always eager to share his conclusions with others. He had hoped to complete a book entitled Slavery, Oppression, and Rebellion: from 10,000 BCE to the present. His remembrance of Malcolm X, published on the 50th anniversary of Malcolm’s assassination, can be found here.
Although his first marriage, to Myrna Mondesire, ended in divorce, Kwame Somburu is survived by their son Daryl Boutelle. He later married Zakiya Somburu, who died in 2010, and is survived by their son Asi-Yahola Somburu, and a stepson, Khalid Sheffield. A memorial was held in Harlem in mid-May and a West Coast memorial is scheduled for later in the summer.
Dianne Feeley is a member of Solidarity in Detroit, and a former member of the Socialist Workers Party.