i was there. i was about 6 or 7 years old and participated in the first kwanzaa. my family knew ron as well as the rest of the US collective. we used to meet on a fairly regular basis at the aquarian center on santa barbara blvd before it became king blvd.
the simple story is that ron as well as a number of others in the movement at the time had very powerful enemies in the government which undermined the ability for blacks to organize any sort of reasonable community political group. however karenga was one of the first to realize that a positive cultural celebration could not be targeted like a political movement. it is a fallacy to assert that karenga was the only person with any ideas at the time. part of the reason the US group disbanded was simply because intelligent black folk don't need 'leaders' the way some folk assert. out of the black arts, black consciosness and black power movements there were several brilliant ideas, but once they were developed and cultivated there was no longer a need for the movement.
as for the slanted question which appears more bent on discrediting kwanzaa rather than understanding it or any of the cultural, political and philosophical background surrounding its inception, i don't know whether or not karenga went to jail. i do know that he fell out of favor with my parents due to some ego problems (there are certain people who feel like they need blacklight posters of them, like were made of huey and angela) and that he was a 'playa' with more than one girlfriend. in any case, it is doubtful that he was convicted of any felony level matter. he is a tenured professor at long beach state as we speak. but also, let me put it to you this way. i have been detained by police officers 27 times, cited 6 times out of those for traffic violations, and arrested once for a traffic warrant. all i am is an ordinary black man. i don't have the fbi out looking for me in the context of 'national security'. trying to discredit a radical black figure of the 60s because they went to jail, is like trying to discredit a republican candidate because democrats say he's a liar. it's all part of the same process.
as for kwanzaa's links to africa, they are simple and plain. we spoke swahili. we spoke swahili like parents who send their kids to french immersion private schools speak french. it wasn't like a phrase here or a phrase there. it was conversational. if you read 'japanese by spring' by ishmael reed, you can get an appreciation of what i mean by the centrality of language in culture. in that way, the originators (note the s) of kwanzaa were more afrocentric than those of the 90s afrocentricity movement. pan africanism was real at the time, members of my family regularly visited west africa, i had an uncle who was an economics professor at the university of ghana. most of the people involved in the early kwanzaas were progressive, as one might imagine. dr. ligon, proprietor of the first and largest black bookstore on the west coast (the aquarian center) was a father figure to most. many people admire king because he studied gandhi, but ligon knew much more of eastern metaphysics and religions. the black arts movement which spawned the watts poets, and was the origin of the career of famous critic stanley crouch, now of the lincoln center jazz organization, was also centered around ligon's aquarian center. alfred ligon and his wife were the property owners and many significant political, cultural and philosophical activities began and were done in his building. the late dr. ligon is the unknown hero here. if karenga was the father of kwanzaa, ligon was the grandfather. however there were many artists and thinkers who congregated around the aquarian center over the years - certainly every major black writer from the west coast over the past 30 years has paid some tribute to dr. ligon.
as others have said, the origins of kwanzaa are important, but what is more important is how it lives on. i am satisfied that kwanzaa is here to stay and that most celebrants have got the spirit right. as i was going to say when i began speaking about progressives, those who would be black instead of negroes in the 60s were also likely to be outspoken critics of the contemporary black christian church. those who found the confrontational, and racist aspects of the nation of islam too strident were the type more likely to find kwanzaa more acceptable. our family declared christmas commercial, hypocritical and lacking in spiritual purity in a christian nation that would subject blacks to second class status. (what a unique insight) so we celebrated kwanzaa instead. later we changed back to christmas, because by the early 70s most of the black power intellectuals like those in my family were making their impact on college campuses instead of just the streets and communities. blackness was solidified and turning the mood in the country towards crossover.
it is foolish to demonize karenga and kwanzaa. in the larger scheme of things history will show what i know to be true. these black cultural nationalists spawned the best of what most americans freely admit, as well as the world recognizes as the best of african american contributions to the world. it is facile for know-nothings to badmouth and search out "he went to jail" in looking at the person of karenga, but that's only a fraction of the story. i think that official history has forgotten dr. ligon, and that his role in the black arts movement should be emphasized especially as it relates to kwanzaa. karenga rightly deserves the credit for selecting the artifacts, but he didn't work in a vaccuum. some of the very first kwanzaa karamus were held under my roof, and i feel that i should also be an ambassador for its roots.
as i celebrate it today (not religiously), many things have changed. ujamaa, for example, has a completely different context today than it did 30 years ago. i expect that kwanzaa will continue to change. but what will continue is its ability to inspire people to be their best, and remind them, in the context of a materialistic society that marginalizes and suppresses original spirits and impulses towards real freedom, that there are certain basic values that cannot and will not be denied. all that is needed is a little honest dedication and a ritualized reminder. that's kwanzaa.