Brooklyn community leader and activist Abubadika Sonny Carson, who died December 20 at Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Manhattan, rose from the era of Brooklyn street gangs, through the civil rights movement, to become a pillar of the black nationalist community.
Carson, who fought in the Korean war with the 82nd Airborne division and was believed to be at least in his late sixties, had been hospitalized in a coma since September. His death was due to complications arising from two heart attacks.
A controversial figure, self-described as “insistent, consistent, and resistant,” Carson was demonized in the media for using what some described as racially polarizing tactics, specifically boycotts such as the one he organized against Korean merchants in Flatbush. He was an ex-convict who fought for the voting rights of fellow ex-prisoners while his past misdeeds and convictions were used to cast a cloud over his intentions. Although hailed by community groups, he has been repeatedly referred to in the context of his sensationalized remarks about being “anti-white” instead of his many everyday contributions to problem-solving in his neighborhood.
Carson was Brooklyn’s Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, a man of the people who never forgot where he came from because he practically never left. After an eye-opening encounter during the Korean War in which an enemy soldier asked him why he, as a black man, was fighting for a country that wouldn’t let him drink water in Mississippi, Carson returned home, spent a period of time with CORE, and sparked the debate over parental control of public education that still rages to this day with the challenge of the school system in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. During the ’80s, Carson was instrumental in the Days of Outrage protests against police brutality and was a cornerstone of the city’s Black Solidarity Day demonstrations.
Immortalized in an autobiography, The Education of Sonny Carson, and a film of the same name that was a graphic exposé of police brutality at the time of its release in 1974, Carson worked tirelessly for self-determination by “kidnapped Africans in America” in their own neighborhoods. He did not favor compromise, and although Carson was more of a man of action than of words, he never failed to speak his mind and as a result was labeled as a firebrand, anti-Semite, and racist by his critics.
One black nationalist mantra speaks of freedom fighters and revolutionaries dying for the people, but in contrast Carson lived for the people, and whether or not one agreed with his methods, Carson was motivated by genuine love and concern for the well-being of the brothers and sisters, young and old, with whom he shared a common background.
One would only have to spend a day at his basement office at Restoration Plaza to grasp the pivotal role that Carson played in the sociopolitical economy of Bedford-Stuyvesant and, by extension, the black community at large. Carson was the elder statesman, the tribal counselor, and the warrior king adorned, staff in hand, in regal Afrocentric garments as he held court and weighed in on matters from the most trivial of domestic affairs to issues of great import to the black diaspora.
Carson, a district judge and founding member of the Republic of New Afrika, was deeply involved in the African Burial Ground project and recently participated in Emancipation Day ceremonies in Ghana, returning the bones of his runaway slave ancestor, navy sailor Samuel Carson, to the land of one of his greatest inspirations, Kwame Nkrumah, the father of modern Ghana. Along with his Committee to Honor Black Heroes, one of the many institutions that he helped create, Carson oversaw the renaming of Brooklyn streets after noteworthy African Americans, and when his health failed, he was in the process of fighting to rename Brooklyn’s Fulton Street in tribute to Harriet Tubman. He was a stalwart supporter of slave reparations, helped establish both Medgar Evers College and the Restoration Plaza, which houses his office, and brought about the Black Men’s Movement Against Crack, a direct-action initiative to shut down crack houses during the peak years of the drug epidemic. Carson was also instrumental in the creation of the December 12th Movement, an organization of African Americans and allies who fight against institutional racism. The December 12th Movement was named for a historic 1987 protest in Newburgh, New York, against police brutality.