U.S.

In Mississippi, America'€™s most revolutionary mayor

Mayor Chokwe Lumumba is '€˜applying a philosophy against imperialism to the practice of repairing streets'€

Chokwe Lumumba, a former vice president of the Republic of New Afrika, was elected mayor of Jackson, Miss. in June
Joe Ellis/The Clarion-Ledger/AP

JACKSON, Miss. — On July 1, Chokwe Lumumba, an attorney with a long record of black radical activism, took office as mayor of Jackson. His inauguration took place in the gleaming convention center that sprang up four years ago in the state capital’s mostly deserted downtown.

A crowd of 2,500 packed the hall. The city councilors and other dignitaries, most of them African-American — Jackson, a city of 177,000, is 80 percent black — sat on the dais. The local congressman, Bennie Thompson, officiated. The outgoing mayor, Harvey Johnson, the city's first black mayor, wished his successor well. The Mississippi Mass Choir gave a jubilant performance of “When I Rose This Morning.”

Finally, Lumumba, 66, approached the podium, pulling the microphone up to suit his tall, lean frame. “Well,” he said, “I want to say, God is good, all the time.”

The crowd replied. “God is good, all the time!”

“I want to say hey! And hello!”

The crowd called back, “Hey! Hello!”

Then Lumumba smiled and raised his right hand halfway, just a little above the podium, briefly showing the clenched fist of a Black Power salute.

“And I want to say, free the land!”

Applause rang out, bells chimed, wooden staffs rose up and people shouted back, “Free the land!” That’s the motto of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), the movement formed in 1968 that sought to turn the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina into an independent black nation.

Jackson’s new mayor is a former vice president of the RNA and a co-founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), a national group born in 1993 that seeks self-determination for African-Americans — whom it calls New Afrikans — “by any means necessary.” Like many shaped by the Black Power era, Lumumba long shunned formal politics, until a successful run for City Council in 2009. Now, as mayor, he is seeking to apply the tenets of the black radical tradition to the duties of running a city. 

It surfaced some really deep-rooted issues in our community.

“Nowadays you’ve got to call yourself a ‘change agent’ or something, or else you’ll make people scared,” Lumumba told me when I visited Jackson in August. “But I am a revolutionary.”

We met in City Hall, a handsome 1846 structure that was built by slave labor and spared destruction in the Civil War because it served as a hospital for both sides. The mayor had just come from a budget hearing before the City Council.

Lumumba was dressed in a dark suit, and his short white hair was discreetly combed over. He is a compelling speaker, prone to long answers, but with the orator’s gift for making complex ideas sound colloquial. He sprinkles his sentences with “all right, OK” and has a sharp sense of humor, which he used to biting effect on his opponents in the mayoral debates.

Raised in Detroit, he was radicalized by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1969 he began law school at Wayne State University, gave up his given name, Edwin Taliaferro, for the “free name” Chokwe Lumumba — honoring the Chokwe ethnic group of Central Africa and the Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba — and joined the RNA in Jackson, leaving law school for two years to dedicate himself to the cause. After graduating, he set up a practice in Detroit and represented the former Black Panther leaders Geronimo Pratt and Assata Shakur.

Lumumba moved back to Jackson in the late 1980s, settling in middle-class Ward 2 with his wife, Nubia, a flight attendant, and their three children. (Nubia died in 2003.) He took on racially charged criminal defense cases in Mississippi, as well as out-of-town clients like the rapper Tupac Shakur. He tangled with the state bar, earning reprimands for, among other things, calling one judge a racist and saying another had the “judicial temperament of a barbarian.” He led the team that secured the 2011 release of the Scott sisters, two African-American women who had gotten life sentences in 1996 for an armed robbery that netted $11.

This background was a deterrent to some Jackson voters, particularly in the city’s small but powerful white business community when Lumumba announced his candidacy. “I was absolutely scared to death of him,” Ben Allen, the president of Downtown Jackson Partners, which represents real estate interests, told me. “Just about everyone I know was. Because if you Google ‘Chokwe Lumumba,’ he has taken some very controversial stances on some very controversial people that he’s represented. And a zebra can’t change its stripes.”

Lumumba’s volunteers got a cold welcome in the city’s mostly white, well-to-do northeast. “They slammed their door on us,” said MXGM activist Mike Walker, who helped run the door-to-door effort.

It was the Democratic runoff in May that decided the race (in overwhelmingly Democratic Jackson, the general election is a formality). Lumumba’s rival was frontrunner Jonathan Lee, a young businessman who had served as president of the Chamber of Commerce. Both had come ahead of Johnson, the incumbent who had held the office for 12 of the last 16 years, in the Democratic primary. Lee sought to portray Lumumba as out-of-touch and extreme, while Lumumba insinuated that Lee was beholden to white Republican interests. Exchanges between their supporters were equally unpleasant.

“Things got really, really ugly,” said C.J. Rhodes, the young pastor of Mount Helm Baptist Church, Jackson’s oldest black congregation. “Those last weeks of the campaign really tested friendships and loyalties.”

“There was the whole ‘Uncle Tom’ stuff, and the ‘You’re too radical’ stuff,” said Nsombi Lambright, a leader of the state NAACP who served on Lumumba’s transition team. “It surfaced some really deep-rooted issues in our community.”

Regina Quinn, an attorney who placed fourth in the primary, said she faced hostility from some of her backers after she endorsed Lumumba in the runoff. One of her campaign-event hosts vowed never to support her again.

“There are some wounds that need to be healed,” Quinn said. “It’s a small town.”

But Jackson’s small size also made it hard to successfully demonize Lumumba, who alongside his radical involvements and controversial cases was also known as a family man, youth basketball coach (he named his team the Panthers), member of the Word and Worship Church and neighbor.

“During the campaign, they raised all this hay about how he’s a radical,” said Melvin Priester Jr., a lawyer who won the election for Lumumba’s seat on the City Council and a childhood friend of the mayor’s daughter, Rukia. “Aside from wearing dashikis in the neighborhood, he was just a loving father,” Priester said. “I saw him as Mr. Lumumba from up the block.”

Besides, depicting a black activist as a radical doesn’t make sense in a place like Mississippi, said Priester. “From outside it’s easy to draw lines between the Republic of New Afrika and mainline civil rights organizations like the NAACP. But for black people in the South, there’s not so much a division, because even the most mainline, suit-and-tie-wearing activists were getting shot at.”

"People were looking at Lumumba as the radical, but they missed the fact that as an attorney and advocate, he made so many deep relationships over the years,” said Rhodes, who voted for Lee but spoke highly of both men. “He was able to speak to the mood of a number of disenchanted black working-class folk, who saw in him the one who finally comes and revolutionizes this chocolate city.”

The time will come when there will be some small differences. We will hold him accountable.

The engine of Lumumba’s campaign was his grassroots operation, led by the same cadre of activists who ran his City Council race in 2009. For four years, these supporters have convened a quarterly People’s Assembly, a sort of town hall meeting, held in church halls and community centers around Ward 2. As councilman, Lumumba used this forum to hear constituents’ concerns and host meetings with various city department heads. Assembly regulars became natural volunteers for his mayoral race. They now intend to take the People’s Assembly citywide.

“The People’s Assembly is an independent body,” said Mattie Wilson Stoddard, its vice chair. “It was developed by the people, for the people, to enable the people.” Lumumba was the people’s candidate, Stoddard said. “But the time will come when there will be some small differences. We will hold him accountable.”

Lumumba’s core supporters espouse a program called the Jackson Plan, which the MXGM posted on its website in 2012. The plan’s aim is to “build a base of autonomous power in Jackson that can serve as a catalyst for the attainment of Black self-determination and the democratic transformation of the economy.” Many of the specifics are practical, even business-friendly — improving Jackson’s paltry recycling program; bringing hothouses and pesticide-free techniques to community gardens; building cheap, energy-efficient housing.

When I asked Lumumba how he planned to build a solidarity economy now that he is mayor, he gave a measured answer.

“You have more affluent folks who have businesses; we want to challenge them to invest in the less fortunate, to try to get people homes they can live in, to give them jobs,” he said. “Show them that they’re likely to get more city contracts, for instance, if they bring more subcontractors who they are developing and helping to expand our economic base, as opposed to the regular old suspects. We think we can do some solidarity with that too.”

Dealing with infrastructure is a protection against being robbed of one’s self-determination.

Lumumba’s top challenge is Jackson’s infrastructure crisis. The roads are rutted and buckled. The water and sewer systems are beset by capacity issues, decaying pipes, and obsolete metering and billing systems. Water-main breaks and flooded streets are chronic. Poorly treated sewage spews into the Pearl River; last year the city signed a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency that binds it to a $400 million investment program to restore compliance. In January 2010, a cold snap caused 70 water breaks and the whole city had to boil water. Even in normal times, tap water often runs brown. Addressing these problems has been difficult in part because Jackson’s tax base is anemic. The population has shrunk by 12 percent since 1980, due to both white and black middle-class flight to suburban Rankin and Madison counties. Over 27 percent of city residents live in poverty.

By August, Lumumba was defending his proposed budget before the City Council. At $502 million, it represented an increase of 43 percent over the previous year, mostly due to capital expenses on infrastructure. One proposed source of funding was a large increase in water rates, by 29 percent, and sewer rates, which would more than double. “We can no longer kick the can down the road,” he told the council.

To raise funds, Lumumba has also set aside a campaign pledge. Under Johnson, the city asked the state Legislature to approve a one-cent sales-tax surcharge to go toward public works, but the plan stalled when the Republican-led Legislature demanded that a joint city-state commission control the funds. During the campaign, Lumumba opposed the commission, but as mayor he has agreed to the arrangement.

He had also objected to a $90 million contract that the outgoing administration had awarded to Siemens for water-system improvements, arguing that its costs were inflated. But it appears that he’ll likely let the contract stand.

“We’re not only worrying about Siemens; we’re worrying about the people that are going to be hired because of Siemens,” he now says.

Lumumba’s pragmatism has pleasantly surprised some skeptics. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve been impressed by this guy,” said Allen, the downtown development advocate. “He’s appointed some of his biggest rivals to his economic-development advisory team. I’m one of them. He’s a good listener. We’re hopeful.”

Lumumba’s focus on infrastructure investment is consistent with the core goal that has run through his political life, beginning with the RNA: self-determination. His emphasis on local empowerment and suspicion of outside authority are representative of his leftist politics, but when applied at the level of a city government, they’re compatible with some varieties of conservative thought as well.

“Dealing with infrastructure is a protection against being robbed of one’s self-determination,” Lumumba said. “We’ve seen what’s happening in Detroit, where the whole city has been taken over by the state. We don’t want that to happen here, so we want to conquer those problems. And we’re trying to expand the base of the population and the alliance which is trying to fight for this avenue for self-determination. We aren’t trying to create more enemies.”

Lumumba appears to be making more friends than enemies. In mid-September, the City Council passed his budget, including the rate increases, by a vote of 5-2. His election has also drawn enthusiastic offers from progressive advocacy groups eager to implement their vision in Jackson. “People are sending in all this stuff,” said Lambright, from the transition team. “A human rights charter, legalization of drugs ... It’s like, slow down!”

When it comes to outside interests, Lumumba is cautious. “Our philosophy is that the people must decide,” he said. “I’m not going to turn away from that to give people who may be revolutionary in some other context an inordinate amount of authority here.” Succeed or fail, the Jackson experiment, as Lumumba sees it, will occur on Jackson’s terms.

“I think I’m going through an experience which can help the movement,” he said. “Testing our ideas, working our ideas in real situations. Applying a philosophy against imperialism to the practice of repairing streets.”

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