Lessons from a civil rights activist

Sekou Kambui addresses issues of modern-day slavery

Audri Scott Willimas, Sekou Kabui (middle) and Karen Hunter Watson at the Legal Services for Prisoners With Children with the prisoner-led All of Us or None organization which recently honored Sekou Kambui in Los Angeles, CA.

Sekou Kambui, also known as William Turk, is no stranger to the long history of racial prejudice and inequality in the U.S. — tensions that are currently leading to protest, counter-protest and even violence throughout the country.

Born in Alabama in 1948, Kambui relocated to Detroit, Michigan, at a young age where he attended a white public school as part of the national integration program instigated by Thurgood Marshall and his  Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case. Proud of this heritage, Kambui didn’t, however, experience any of the “drama” that many other children experienced in places such as Little Rock, Arkansas, where white mobs protested the entry of black students. 

“Fortunately for me,” he says, “I enrolled and went about the business of going to school.”

By the early 1960s, Kambui traveled back to Alabama to join the Freedom Riders protesting segregated buses throughout the South and was affiliated with civil rights groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Later he was involved in the Black Panther Movement, the Black Liberation Army and the Afro-American People’s Party among others.

“I was raised up in the civil rights movement and I was taught how to organize in the community,” he says. “Pretty much any organization that was down on the ground in the ’60s and ’70s, they used all of us teenagers and kids from one organization to the next, one day to the next. So we became affiliated with them if not a member.”

Throughout this time, Kambui says he was harassed by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Council, and several attempts were made on his life. Then in 1975, after being pulled over for a traffic stop and found with a pistol on the passenger seat, he was accused of murdering two white men in Alabama and sentenced to two life terms.

Later investigations revealed major flaws in the prosecution of the case, including key witnesses admitting they received threats from law enforcement to testify against Kambui. He has also never been placed at either crime scene nor has his gun been linked to the crime. For that, he identifies as a “formerly incarcerated political prisoner,” finally released on parole in June 2014 after serving 47 years in Alabama prisons. He credits his release to teachers, college professors, doctors, lawyers and “John Doe citizens” who solicited his release, including a change.org petition originating in Boulder. Kambui is currently traveling the country, sharing his story and speaking out against what he calls modern day slavery — mass incarceration, child poverty and human trafficking — as part of the Red Flame for Freedom tour with other activists Audri Scott Williams, Karen Watson and Tannur Ali.

“I’m approaching a time where I should be retiring from this running around the country defending social justice issues and fighting for human rights in the prison and community,” he says. But, “I’m looking at the fact that there was a lot of people I left behind incarcerated.” 

Since Kambui was first incarcerated, the prison population in the U.S. has quadrupled. Amnesty International reports that despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses 22 percent of the world’s prison population; other reports say it’s up to 25 percent. Approximately 2 million people are incarcerated in prisons and jails across the U.S., and it’s been reported for over a decade that if trends continue, one in three black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.

“I fought continuously from beginning to end to get out of prison,” Kambui says. “But over the course of 47 years I met a lot of people. And I began to recognize in them the same qualities and the same characteristics that would be conducive to becoming a productive citizen in society. So I kind of hated to leave all those guys who I knew had good character, who had worked to correct any errors in their judgment about how to make decisions in their lives. And they are diligently trying to prepare themselves to become a productive member of society but they are continuously being withheld from release.”

While serving his sentence, Kambui became a jailhouse lawyer for other inmates while also advocating for and even teaching public speaking, GED preparation, computer literacy and music programs. After his release, he has continued to speak out about mass incarceration while also working with community organizers to combat issues such as child poverty, human trafficking and racism that contribute to the increasing incarceration rates.

“Communities should be able to look around them and discern what’s wrong, where the problems lay, whether it’s families unable to feed their children or elderly people unable to manage their health issues because they’re alone,” Kumbai says. “We give common sense, everyday ideas and thoughts about what we should be doing. We should be educating our men, women and children in our communities into a new way of understanding and a correct way of thinking in relation to people of color and why we should invest more in peace and love toward our fellow men than hatred and violence.”

At the Boulder event, Kambui will be joined by Brenda Lyle, founder and executive director of the Family Learning Center, which works to provide children from low-income, culturally diverse families with both academic and career development opportunities in Boulder County. As a black woman who has lived in Boulder for 38 years, Lyle hopes the community can discuss and address the issues she both sees and experiences every day.

“The same issues that people are talking about around the country, to a certain degree, maybe a small degree or maybe a greater degree, are prevalent in our community,” Lyle says. “We’re not immune to those social justice issues.”

Lyle says Boulder does a good job at hiding it, but poverty and racism are prevalent in the area. According to 2015’s The Status of Children in Boulder County Report, the child poverty rate has increased 74 percent since 1994 with 16.2 percent of children under 18 living in poverty in 2014. Additionally, 15.6 percent of children in Boulder County live just above the poverty line, although this number has remained relatively steady in the same time frame, as has the total poverty rate of 14.1 percent. And, citing the City’s recent reports of racial profiling in the police department, Lyle says she experiences racism, both overtly and in the form of white privilege and denial, perhaps more now than when she first moved here. She hopes to expose and address these aspects of modern day slavery at the Red Flame for Freedom event.

“The whole concept of slavery was because of the color of your skin, because you’re part of the economic system of free labor. There was no access to opportunities of upward mobility,” Lyle says. “If you have systems that severely limit huge parts of the population from having equitable, not even equal, but equitable access to opportunities for upward mobility then you create the problems we’re seeing.”

After sharing their own thoughts, experiences and research on the issues, Kambui and others from the Red Flame for Freedom tour plan on sitting and listening to Boulderites like Lyle, in hopes of building bridges and work-shopping actionable steps for the community to take to address them.

“With all the resources that we have in Boulder,” Lyle says, “If we can’t deal with racism, if we can’t deal with child poverty, if we can’t come together in this community to address and remediate these issues then I don’t know that there’s any hope that anybody anywhere in this country is going to be able to do that.”

Lyle, for one, remains optimistic that Boulder can be a success story when it comes to these issues, becoming a “beacon of light and hope” for the rest of the country. And whereas Kambui could have become embittered by the injustices he’s both seen and experienced his entire life, he continues his work as a community organizer, encouraging everyone everywhere to get involved and be part of the solution.

“We want to bring to the light that we should be our brother’s keeper, that we should contribute to groups and contribute to people who are working in the community who are trying to balance things out,” Kambui says. “[We’re] trying to educate people into an understanding that we all owe each other respect via human dignity.” 

On the Bill: Red Flame for Freedom with Sekou Kambui and others. Saturday, July 23, 1 p.m. First Congregational Church, 1128 Pine St., Boulder, 303-442-1787. 

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