WINNSBORO — When Councilman Kamau Marcharia leads a rally at the Fairfield County Court House on Saturday morning he continues being dedicated to social and political activism.
The rally with rural residents gives them opportunity to exercise their voices in the face of what he considers to be systemic economic and social inequality in county funding of projects in its rural areas. Some have questioned why that rally tactic is needed.
To understand the rally, one needs to better understand the forces that shaped Marcharia into an activist. The first political office he held was as representative on a inmate committee in Trenton State Prison in the 1960s.
Then known as Robert Lewis, the 16-year-old had been a warlord in the New Jersey area for a local gang who ensured his gang had the guns and equipment it needed to settle scores with rival gangs. He said he and some of his buddies were on their way home from a party when they came across a young couple in a peach orchard.
A fight broke out between a young white man and the people with whom Marcharia was traveling. He said when he tried to break up the fight, one of his cousins pulled a gun on him, so he fled to a friend’s house. He said he was not present for what followed including an assault of the young man and repeated rape of the young woman.
At that trial, the victim told the jury that Marcharia was not present and not one of the young men who assaulted her.
Yet, Marcharia said he was grouped in with his friends and tried for rape and assault. For those charges he was imprisoned from 1964 to 1973. Prior to standing trial, he said he was beaten by law enforcement officials who knocked a few of his teeth loose.
Some threatened to castrate him. He was scared even to attend trial because he said the young men he traveled with had been beaten by the victim’s family when they stood trial.
Fueled by anger, hatred
He said anger and hatred fueled him during his early years on the inside, a formative experience where he constantly looked over his shoulder fearing for his safety not only from inmates attacks but from the guards.
Today he speaks of rapes and assault that took place in an environment. While in prison, Marcharia, said he drew inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood, though he never became a member of the organization.
From that group he learned of influential black people of all political persuasions and that was one reason Marcharia, who entered prison illiterate, became determined to teach himself to read.
The tool at his disposal first was copies of Reader’s Digest in the prison library. He read the entire Tarzan series as another primer and became well acquainted, in time, with a trusty dictionary.
The forays into reading led Marcharia to begin writing letters and eventually to composing his own legal briefs in hopes of convincing the parole board to grant him parole.
Yet, that quest placed him in a Catch-22: The parole board did not view him as a contrite prisoner because he refused to tell them he was sorry for the crime he was charged with. Instead he maintained his innocence.
“I realized what unified everyone in prison was the desire to be free, so I started assisting other inmates with legal appeals on their paroles,” he said.
Those efforts caught the eye of a Harvard Law graduate, activist and author Andrew Vachss. Vachss and others working with him famously took the case of Ruben Hurricane Carter, a man with whom Kamau once shared a cell block with and even boxed at one point.
Vachss said the reason he considered pursuing Marcharia’s case was that other felons in the prison told him of Marcharia’s story and that they genuinely believed he was innocent. At that time Marcharia said he truly hated white people because of the injustices done to him.
“From Andrew Vachss I learned that it was not the color of one’s skin that determined if they were my brother. It was their willingness to recognize our shared humanity,” Marcharia said.
He was touched also by Vachss’ associate Ramon Jimenez, a Puerto Rican, and seeing those two men work together showed Marcharia that race need not be a dividing line. Marcharia asked Vacchs how he could repay him or what Vacchs was looking for in return for helping him.
“Nothing,” he said. “Go out and do something for someone else some day.”
That moment of grace forever shaped the man formerly known as Robert Lewis, who was given his name Kamau Marcharia by family members.
No more Robert Lewis
Marcharia wanted to be a social worker but could not pursue schooling further due to his record preventing him from having access to financial aid. Instead became involved politically.
“It was anger that got me through prison time but love is what got me out,” Marcharia said.
He was offered parole without conditions, so he returned home to South Carolina and eventually settled in the Jenkinsville area.
When asked why he did not leave here for another state where he would not have to register as a sex offender as he does under South Carolina law, he said, “This is my roots. It’s home and I love the area.”
Marcharia also said he is not going to run from adversity. Rather he seeks to better the society around him though that stance can bring about controversy and at times make him a target.
In 2006, in an incident he said was politically motivated, Marcharia said several local officials learned of his past and insisted he register as a sex offender. He said the attacks levied at him came from his efforts to take on political corruption within the county, efforts that made enemies.
When informed of the letter of the law, Marcharia eventually did register — under protest with his lawyer present. He said the push for him to have to register as a sex offender was politically motivated with tactics reminiscent of the late Lee Attwater.
At the time, some of his political opponents petitioned the election commission saying he as a convicted felon was not fit to hold a county office. After a review process, the election commission ruled in Marcharia’s favor.
On the registration on the sex offender list, the sheriff denoted that Marcharia was not a predator. Yet the stigma remains and he continues to register twice a year as the law requires.
He said students from Rutgers Law School have searched for months for his records and transcripts of the trial but so far they have not found the information, a crucial step to him ever having the chance his record would be expunged.
“A court has to exonerate me,” he said.
Instead of remaining bitter about injustices life has handed him, Marcharia channeled that energy into fuel for his efforts at social and political change.
“People did incredible things for me and just responded by saying they were glad they could help me. I want to be able to help people like that,” he said.
That desire is what leads him, a member of Fairfield County Council, to lead a rally against the policies of the very council on which he serves. The rally is about more than race, though he said race is one piece of the puzzle in the economic disparity in Fairfield County.
So it is from that background that Kamau Marcharia, a man whom inmates nicknamed Dragon, intends to light a fire under the powers that be in Fairfield County until justice is done.
“People have the power to make the people in power pay attention,” he said. “and if the people lead, the leaders will follow.”