Chokwe Lumumba has died, an extraordinary leader who carried a radical vision of liberation forged in the 1970s black power movement into the 21st Century where he retooled it for eight transformational months in city government.
A founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an activist attorney and a former City Council member, Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, in June 2013, with 86 percent of the vote despite being massively outspent. In office, he brought people together across class and race lines and thawed a multi-year freeze between the city and state legislators.
His language was direct, his goal, he told me earlier this month, was “revolutionary transformation” but he not only inspired his community, he was clearly disarming his critics with his tireless commitment to building support for his twin goals of political and economic democracy.
Duane O’Neal, president of the Greater Jackson Partnership and CEO of the regional Chamber of Commerce, told me he had had more, “more meaningful” meetings with the new mayor in a few months than he had with the past administration in all of its sixteen years in office. After years of foot-dragging on painful issues, like needed repair to decrepit urban infrastructure, O’Neal said that business leaders appreciated Lumumba as “a man of action.”
Movement veteran Hollis Watkins, founder of Southern Echo (a civil rights organization), met Lumumba forty years ago. “Whatever it was he was doing, he was coming from the same set of principles,” Watkins said earlier this month. “When he became a permanent fixture in Mississippi I knew we had someone that would not sell his people out and had no problem in speaking up for that which needed to be spoken.”
Just two weeks before his death I had a chance to speak with Mayor Lumumba for a story for Yes Magazine about what he called “solidarity economics.” Lumumba planned to stimulate Jackson’s stalled economy by creating jobs for Jacksonians, bottom-up, through public works, shared ownership and urban gardens. Asked about walking to work at City Hall, through a door marked “built by slave labor,” Lumumba smiled and replied:
“I think some of the most significant things happen in history when you get the right people in the right place at the right time and I think that’s what we are. When you talk about a building, which is designated as being built by slaves, that’s the right place. When you talk about people who’ve been under this oppression all of their ancestors’ and their lives, those are the right people. And this is the right time, the people who elected [this administration] make that true…The right time for revolutionary transformation.”
Lumumba, who named himself after the assassinated Congolese President, Patrice Lumumba, first came to Jackson in 1971, soon after the police killing of two students at Jackson State University. A member of a group calling itself The Republic Of New Afrika, he helped to found a farm, with the intention of building a society in the heart of the so-called “black belt”that was pledged to equal treatment.
“We came to the center of white supremacy which was absolutely antithetical to who we were. We fought in different ways: physically, through teaching and in the courts. I did a bit of all of it,” he said. “But God blessed me to come out of the period – not to be killed, not to be destroyed emotionally and psychologically as so many were – and blessed me to the point that we recognized that our biggest defense is our community and the work you did in that community.”
The Lumumba administration was supporting a conference called Jackson Rising: New Economies, to be held May 2-4, at Jackson State University.
Read the transcript of our in-depth interview in full at Yes Magazine: Remembering Chokwe Lumumba.