Kamau Marcharia drives through the small, backwater towns of his home state of South Carolina in a Nissan with a license plate that bears one word: JUSTICE. A determined grass roots leader, his commitment to bringing justice to the most forsaken, and social consciousness to the most isolated, has propelled him to build a strong coalition among Southern communities struggling against racism, ignorance, and despair.
Born Robert Lewis, Kamau’s grandfather gave him a Swahili name that means “black warrior” when he was 14. His childhood in Saluda County, South Carolina, and then in Albion, New Jersey, was a constant struggle to survive poverty and racism. In Albion, Kamau lived with his eight brothers and parents in a house without a bathroom or electricity. In the summers, he went south to work cutting wood and doing odd jobs with his brothers for as little as $2 a day.
Kamau was kicked out of school in sixth grade. He lived on the streets and began running with a gang. At 16, he was convicted of an assault and sent to prison despite a witness’s testimony that Kamau was not present at the scene of the crime. In prison he completed his high school education as well as two years of college and, after being denied parole, he began campaigning against the New Jersey Parole Board’s arbitrary parole eligibility decisions. It was 11 years before Kamau was released. But he did not turn his back on those he had left behind. He founded the Ad Hoc Parole Committee to continue fighting for reform of the parole system, and started a prison prevention program that paired ex-offenders with juvenile delinquents.
Kamau moved to Saluda County and found work at a plywood mill. But soon after taking the job, he realized that the environment was saturated with institutionalized racism. White supervisors were raping black female employees; inappropriate management promotions were being made; racist language went unchallenged. He began organizing a union and was soon laid off. “After that I went on a bender,” Kamau says. In 1980, he went to a community meeting that would change his life. “Everyone was sitting around talking about their problems, and I said they should start organizing the young people. They said ‘you’re hired.’ There was no money to pay me, but I got to work,” Kamau says.
Kamau secured an office in back of a barber shop and organized a group of young people whom he taught the importance of pride, respect, and togetherness. The success of this project spurred him on to organize a community action group—The Concerned Citizens of Saluda. Concerned Citizens took on a range of racial and economic injustices in the county, starting with a successful lawsuit against the county government for its use of a government recreation fund to support a private, whites-only swimming pool.
After this victory, Kamau took a job organizing with Fairfield United Action in neighboring Fairfield County. “I think once you get people to think for themselves it’s time to move on,” Kamau says. While at FUA, Kamau spearheaded an investigation into the county’s rigging of majority-white juries, which had resulted in unfair convictions against hundreds of blacks. He took on the case of a retarded black man who was shot to death by a Fairfield police officer, and helped the family sue the police department for $5 million. The suit was settled, to Kamau’s disappointment, at a mere $10,000. He also helped organize a community of 2,000 black people living outside Winnsboro city limits to fight for running water and indoor bathrooms.
In 1990, Kamau took a position with Grassroots Leadership and formed an Orangeburg County group called Tri County United Action (TCUA, now called South Carolina United Action). TCUA challenged a local baseball team who refused to play against a United Auto Workers’ team from Maryland with black members. He also investigated the corruption and racism of the local police department. He found that in one town in Orangeburg County, 62 percent of the police department’s budget came from arresting and fining blacks.
In 1995, Kamau took a six-month sabbatical from his organizing to travel to India, in part to look at community organizing there. “I believe evil is a force all over and you have to deal with it,” he says, but adds, “I have a strong belief in humanity—I think once people know what the real deal is they’ll get busy and do something about it.” He is fueled by a very personal struggle to succeed. “I dropped out of school when I was in sixth grade and didn’t learn to read and write until I was 21. I get hope from my revenge—my revenge is to get people involved in their own futures—to help young people who are really trying without vision and without hope.” In early 1997, Kamau was asked by the AFL-CIO Union Summer program to help young people learn about the labor movement by participating in local union campaigns.
The battle is far from over. Kamau Marcharia is wary of recent trends. “I ask people: what are the signs of a holocaust? What does it mean to have a 400 percent increase in the rates of locking black women up? What does it mean to pass laws that make it OK to execute a thirteen year old?” Kamau has now returned to Grassroots Leadership to continue work on issues of race and justice, providing an ever-growing circle of communities the tools for change.