After obtaining a B.A. from City College of Los Angeles, he went on to the University of California to earn Ph.Ds in political science and in social ethics. There Karenga met Malcolm X and was influenced by their discussions of black power and social change.
In 1965, Karenga formed the Us Organization in Los Angeles and formulated his theory called 'Kawaida', a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Central to this theory are Nguzo Saba('Seven Principles'), which are reinforced during the seven days of Kwanzaa.
In 1967 and 1968, Karenga worked with Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr to hold the historic Black Power Conferences. In 1978, Karenga authored a comprehensive black studies textbook and in 1984, co-hosted the conference out of which grew the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations. In 1995, he sat on the organizing committee and authored the Mission Statement for the Million Man March.
Karenga has extensively studied the philosophy and culture of the Yoruba Ifa. He is chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, where he also chairs the President's Task Force on Multicultural Education and Campus Diversity. Karenga has been visiting professor in black studies at Stanford University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is director of the Institute for Pan African Studies.