The death of Chokwe Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Miss., interrupts one of America’s most promising civic experiments still in its fragile beginning.
Lumumba, who died Tuesday at age 66 of heart failure, took office last July in a city coping with the long-term effects of middle-class flight and infrastructure decay. He was a proud black radical. Only the third black mayor of Jackson, he was also by far the most prominent leader of a major city to come from the black revolutionary movement. His commitment was forged in the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), the social movement that aimed to turn the Deep South into an independent black nation, and was upheld throughout his career as an activist and radical attorney.
Lumumba had served as city councilor for Jackson’s Ward 2 since 2009, but his victory as mayor of Mississippi’s capital surprised even some of his most ardent supporters. It sparked worries in the city’s establishment — both black and white — where he was known for his work as an attorney on civil rights and death penalty cases. He was considered potentially too radical to build coalitions and too outspoken for the wheeling and dealing necessary to govern a city.
It did not take him long to prove them wrong. Lumumba quickly forged strong working ties across Jackson’s civic spectrum, earning plaudits from his election opponents and the business community. He passed a budget that raised spending by 43 percent to address the city’s urgent infrastructure needs, in part to comply with an Environmental Protection Agency consent decree. And he funded it with a sharp rise in water and sewer rates. He won approval by referendum of a sales tax increase for public works, a measure he had opposed as a candidate because it required state legislature supervision.
For Lumumba, these were the first steps on a long road to recovery for Jackson, whose population has shrunk by 12 percent since 1980, and where 27 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Despite efforts to revive downtown, most investment in the area has gone to the suburbs. The city has terrible roads, an overflowing sewage system and a water supply that frequently requires boil notices. It is also 80 percent black and staunchly Democratic in a Republican state where the Tea Party is strong.
Lumumba believed that dealing with infrastructure was a radical act that would secure the city’s autonomy and protect it from the kind of takeover that befell Detroit, his birth city. But his vision extended further. It encompassed cooperatives, recycling, alternative energy and other tools to create a “people’s economy” with local investment and employment.
This vision’s most ambitious expression was the Jackson-Kush plan, an agenda prepared by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which Lumumba co-founded in the 1990s and which provided the organizing engine for his campaign. The plan promoted a sustainable economy and progressive community organizing. It had a political component as well: People’s Assemblies, a kind of decision-making town meeting, which the group held in Lumumba’s ward while he was councilor and was hoping to expand to the city.
In his eight months as mayor, Lumumba maintained his balance between radicalism and pragmatism in a manner that suggested they were a natural combination. Confident and frank, he participated in a warm “conversation about community” with former Gov. Haley Barbour in November, and he gave the state legislature an effusive welcome at the start of its 2014 session. In truth, parts of his vision — the emphasis on self-determination and local enterprise — were compatible with small-business conservative ideas, if reached through a very different journey.
Lumumba was born Edwin Finley Taliaferro on Aug. 2, 1947. He attended Catholic schools, followed by Kalamazoo College and law school at Wayne State University. His political consciousness awakened early. An early memory, he said, was his mother showing him a photo of the mangled body of Emmett Till, the black boy who was murdered in Mississippi at age 14 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. But he became radicalized in the wake of the death of Martin Luther King Jr., while he was in college.
Discarding his “slave name,” he took the name Chokwe Lumumba, honoring a Central African ethnic group and the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. He joined the nascent RNA and took time off from law school to serve as its “consul from Detroit” and later vice president. The group set up headquarters in Jackson as a prelude to expanding in the South. In August 1971, a police raid on the RNA house led to a shootout. A police officer died, and seven members were arrested. Lumumba was not present, and neither was the RNA president, Imari Obadele, who was nonetheless tried for conspiracy. The group scattered and Lumumba returned to Detroit, graduating from law school with honors.
He set up his own law firm in Detroit in 1978, and quickly gained renown for taking on the defense of militants and revolutionaries. These included inmates who mutinied in 1978 at the maximum security prison in Pontiac, Ill.; Fulani Sunni Ali, who was accused (and then exonerated) of participating in a Brink's truck attack in Rockland County, N.Y., in 1981; and the Black Panther Geronimo ji-Jaga Pratt, whose 1972 murder conviction would eventually be vacated in 1997.
When Lumumba moved to Jackson in 1988, his record was not to the liking of the Mississippi bar, which took three years to admit him. He still took on occasional outside cases, representing at one point the rapper Tupac Shakur, but he focused on Mississippi. There he took on a long string of cases on behalf of mostly, but not exclusively, black or working-class clients, scoring high-profile victories. Many of these were capital murder cases. Others involved workplace discrimination, police brutality and drug charges. Lumumba led the team that secured freedom for the Scott sisters, who received life sentences in 1996 for an armed robbery that netted $11 and that they denied committing. The two women were pardoned in 2011.
For all his ardent commitments — and his personal style, which featured sober suits, fedoras and colorful dashikis — Lumumba was also known in Jackson as a family man, and a mentor to the young men he coached in his beloved youth basketball team, the Panthers. His wife, Nubia, died in 2003. He is survived by two sons, Kambon and Chokwe Antar; a daughter, Rukia; and a grandson.
In a conversation last August, eight weeks into his term, Lumumba said he hoped his work as mayor would help his own city and others.
“I think I’m going through an experience which can help the movement,” he said. “And this experience is testing our ideas in real situations. Applying a philosophy against imperialism to the practice of repairing streets.
“The fact that we’re getting an opportunity to work in a governmental situation to bring these things to reality, I think is special,” he added. “I think we’re going to do a good job, and we’re going to pass the baton to those who are going to do a better job.”