Chokwe Lumumba’s dilemma was simple: how to be a revolutionary in a decidedly non-revolutionary Mississippi.
It was a mission that seemed bound to alienate and polarize, even long before he became mayor of Jackson, home to a state capitol building flying a defiant Confederate battle flag and a city hall built by slave labor.
But when I went to Jackson to profile the newly elected Lumumba last year and in my conversations with Mississippians throughout this year, I was shocked at how hard it was to find someone who didn’t like him. Economic populists like Rickey Cole, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and his staff were keen to show solidarity with Jackson’s new administration. They talked about Lumumba’s honor and integrity, whatever their political differences. After his death, Cole called the mayor “a man by the people, of the people, and for the people.”
Even business leaders in the city like Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, expressed surprise during Lumumba’s administration about how clear, open and efficient his first few months in office had been. Hampered by a lack of city revenue and hostility at the state-level, Lumumba had just passed a one-cent local sales tax to fund Jackson’s infrastructure. The taps ran brown and many roads were in disrepair when I visited the city, and the Environmental Protection Agency had threatened action if waste systems weren’t upgraded. There was nothing especially radical about the tax, except for the fact that Lumumba took his case to the people, explaining the situation and winning consent for the measure in a referendum.
It gave a new resonance to the “sewer socialist” tradition that administered public office for generations in Milwaukee and elsewhere in the last century. But there were signs that if the mayor and his Malcolm X Grassroots Movement stayed in power, the deepening of their revolution would attract something of a counter-revolution in response.
Lumumba was born in Detroit as Edwin Finley Taliaferro. He saw racism growing up—from all-white restaurants in Dearborn that wouldn’t serve his family to housing and job discrimination in the inner city. It was enough to instill a level of social consciousness in the young man, consciousness that would only grow as he absorbed the era’s images: Emmett Till’s battered teenaged corpse, street battles and sit-ins and, most formatively, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Like so many other black youth, he was radicalized. Adopting his “free name” after a Central African ethnic group and slain Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, Chokwe, put ambitions of becoming a lawyer on hold to join the fight. He was attracted to the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) movement, which had roots in Detroit but relocated to Jackson. They wanted a new nation in the African-American majority counties of the southeast.
In 1971, Lumumba joined them in Jackson—where, like other cities in Mississippi, blacks had little political representation and nostalgia for Jim Crow was still strong. That same year, in August, local police and FBI agents raided the RNA compound. In the ensuing gun battle, during which Lumumba was not present, a police officer was killed and another, along with a federal agent, was wounded. Eleven New Afrika members were arrested. In the aftermath, Lumumba moved back to Detroit, finishing law school at Wayne State University in 1975 before finding his way back to Jackson later that decade.
But Lumumba’s was not a tale of a radical coming to terms with society as it exists, like so many of those from the New Left. His legal career was radical and often controversial. He took on a host of high-profile cases, including that of Fulani Sunni Ali, rapper Tupac Shakur and former Black Panther Party members Geronimo Pratt and Assata Shakur.
He never renounced the goal of black self-determination or apologized for his activism during his Republic of New Afrika years. Lumumba told me as recently as last week that only his tactics had changed in light of the new political avenues now open to black militants in the South.
“At that time, in the seventies, we were locked out of government,” he said, “We were actually victims of government violence, so we protected ourselves against that repression.”
Today, the situation is different. From Tunica, in northwest Mississippi, to Wilkerson County in the southwest, there are eighteen predominantly black counties in the state that have for the last few decades finally been able break the domination of white officeholders. Lumumba saw this as only the start of the deep transformation that the region needed.
“One of the routes to that self-determination,” he told me in the same interview, “is to use the governmental slots in order to accumulate the political power that we can, and then to demand more, and to build more.” But he was quick to portray his movement as an inclusive, socialist one. “This is not a ‘hate whitey’ movement. This is not some kind of a reactionary nationalist movement,” he added.
Lumumba and the activists that rallied around his campaigns hoped to establish two planks of political power: one based on “people’s assemblies” and another on a “solidarity economy,” built on a network of worker-owned cooperatives. The assemblies were, for the moment, purely advisory. They started in Ward 2, while he was a councilman, but spread after his election as mayor.
Mississippi has more in common with a developing country than New England in the length of its democratic tradition. Yet Lumumba wanted to foster a democratic culture that was not just representative, but participatory. Having people voice their grievances in town halls and have a say in the distribution of public resources was part of that commitment. But he had loftier ambitions beyond that: he wanted the new organs of people’s power, absolute and direct democracy, to replace existing structures over time.
He didn’t even think that his government could be equated with “people’s power.” “That’s still a struggle to be achieved, that’s a goal to be reached. That’s not where we are now,” Lumumba cautioned.
The solidarity economy schemes were just as ambitious. While keenly aware and open about the limits of political and economic experimentation on the local level, and seeing his new administration’s efforts as being transitional, Lumumba wanted to use city contracts and economic leverage to foster worker ownership. Evoking the Ujamaa concept of former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, they hoped to transform a full 10 percent of Jackson’s economy into cooperatives by the end of his first term alone. The administration has been planning for months to debate and explore their options with activists and outside experts at a “Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference” in May.
It was less about spearheading a revolution from above than creating the climate of radical thought and experimentation that could take on dynamics of its own. In the meantime, even Jackson’s moderates were won over by clean and efficient government and Lumumba’s easy charm and humor.
That support would have been needed. Activists within the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement worried that if they went too far too fast, the state legislature could limit self-governance in Jackson, maybe placing the city under trusteeship. What’s more, both sides knew that the honeymoon period with downtown developers couldn’t last either. Real economic and political transformation requires taking power away from those not keen on relinquishing it.
I spoke to Lumumba with the usual skepticism several days before he died. How does a revolutionary manage a historically racist police force? How does a grassroots movement that wins office maintain its independence and autonomy? What’s so radical about a sales tax, anyway? How much can actually be done at the local level? Is the movement in Jackson too dependent on the force of his own personality? He laughed and said that like a good radical intellectual I had a knack for identifying contradictions.
Like a good radical leader, Lumumba had a knack for resolving them.
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