Chokwe Lumumba and Black Nationalist Convergence

Chokwe Lumumba, (Photo: Joe Ellis/The Clarion-Ledger/AP).

Eight months into his tenure as mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Lumumba passed away on February 25, 2014. The sixty-six-year-old mayor had spent his adult life as a partisan in the revolutionary Black Nationalist movement. He first came to Mississippi in 1971 with the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) as part of its efforts to establish an independent land base in the Deep South. After police and the FBI attacked the RNA, Lumumba completed law school so that he could defend the movement. And defend the movement he did. He was a public defender in his native Michigan for a time and then moved to New York City. His clients included other revolutionary Black nationalists like Mutulu Shakur and hip hop star (and Mutulu’s stepson) Tupac Shakur, as well as scores of indigent Black people targeted by the carceral state.

In 1988, Lumumba and his family returned to Jackson. He continued his legal practice. Perhaps most famously, he represented the sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott, who received double life sentences for allegedly plotting an eleven dollar armed robbery that was carried out by other people (who received three year sentences). The sisters, twenty-one and nineteen when they were sentenced in 1994, spent sixteen years in prison before a grassroots campaign successfully pressured the conservative governor to grant them clemency.

By the time the Scott sisters were freed in January 2011, Lumumba was more than an attorney. He won a City Council seat in 2009 representing Jackson’s Ward 2. Four years later, he became the mayor of Jackson.

Although many mainstream media outlets puzzled at Lumumba’s “militant past” in light of his responsibility to now govern as mayor, his turn to electoral politics was a clear evolution of his decades as an organizer. Black nationalism has a strong governing imperative. Oriented around the politics of self-determination, Black nationalists have labored to craft the infrastructure needed to govern.

To be sure, there have been fierce debates about whether such governance is possible or desirable within the existing American political apparatus. Moderate Black nationalists have sought refuge in city council and mayoral seats since the 1970s, while radicals pursued more dramatic approaches to governance. Much of Lumumba’s career was associated with insurrectionary attempts at governance. The RNA moved to Mississippi in 1971 to establish a “provisional government” there, a kind of government-in-exile that Irish, Palestinian, and Puerto Rican nationalists (among others) were also attempting to implement at the time in their respective homelands. As an attorney, Lumumba represented people accused of belonging to the Black Liberation Army (BLA), an offshoot of the Black Panther Party that engaged in bank robberies and retaliatory attacks on police. The BLA imagined itself as the armed forces of a Black nation whose liberation was forestalled by routine state violence.

Regardless of these significant strategic differences, Lumumba’s life demonstrates that governance remains a pillar of Black nationalist politics. His life shows something else, too. Black nationalist governance is, at root, a collective endeavor. Superficially, that collectivity can be seen in his own reluctance to run for office, whether as city councilor or later as mayor. In both cases, members of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM)—a national grassroots organization that Lumumba co-founded in Jackson in 1990—approached Lumumba to run, just as they approached his son and others to run as part of a slate of candidates.

Running candidates for office was the next logical step in what MXGM has dubbed its “Jackson-Kush Plan.” Building on the RNA’s thinking about the Black Belt South, The Jackson-Kush Plan names a multipronged strategy for developing Black political power and Black governance in the majority-Black districts of the South. “Kush” refers to the eighteen contiguous counties along the Mississippi River in the western part of the state, all but one of which are majority Black (and the remaining one is nearly 50 percent Black). Jackson is the center of Kush, geographically and politically. MXGM organizers hope that turning Jackson into an exemplar of eco-socialism becomes a seedbed of a larger political shift in the South—and with it, the country.

As MXGM organizer Kali Akuno explains in Jackson Rising, a new book he edited with Ajamu Nangwaya, electoral politics is only one small branch of the Jackson-Kush Plan. Akuno notes, “The process of mass education and instructional struggle is far more important than holding office.” The plan itself grew from years of doing “Jackson Peoples Assemblies,” which began after Hurricane Katrina as a way for everyday residents to push the government to respond to their needs while also creating their own parallel form of governance in the process.

Between the success of the assemblies and the loss of the mayor’s office after the death of Lumumba, organizers there created Cooperation Jackson. An innovative quasi-governmental body, Cooperation Jackson is pursuing four interrelated visions for the city (the language below is Cooperation Jackson’s):

  • Solidarity city: policies and programs supporting cooperative development.
  • Fab city: policies and programs that support community production and tech democracy.
  • Human rights city: policies and programs that promote the full complement of human rights and democracy.
  • Sustainable city: policies and programs that support clean energy and zero waste.

The depiction of Black nationalist governance in Jackson Rising is ambitious, admirable, and inspiring. It is democratic, ecological, and internationalist. When Lumumba became mayor, one of his proposals was to replace the city’s charter with the Human Rights charter as part of a larger effort to hold the city, state, and country to the loftier standards of international law–something Black nationalists have attempted since at least the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” petition. Cooperation Jackson’s thinking on cooperatives is in deep dialog with other grassroots cooperatives, especially in Basque country. And the group’s vision of eco-socialism and solidarity economy is a sophisticated attempt to balance democratic participation with political urgency.

The governing model of Cooperation Jackson dramatically exceeds the limits of electoral politics. “[T]oo much emphasis has been placed on electoral politics in reference to the Jackson-Kush Plan,”  Akuno and Nangwaya argue, “both by the mainstream capitalist press and in left and progressive media circles.” They further explain,

This emphasis reflects a deep, manufactured bias in bourgeois societies that orients the public towards paying more attention and giving more credence to the illusions of alleged ‘democratic governance,’ rather than the real contests for political and social power reflected in the motion of capital and the perpetuation of capitalist social relations which the sham of democratic governance enables in these societies.”

Jackson Rising and the work of Cooperation Jackson perpetually remind us that governance must attend to the big picture work of economic transformation.

That’s not a new emphasis. SNCC veteran Hollis Watkins is quoted in the book on the significance of economic demands to the civil rights movement. “When we talked about rights, economics was always part of the program,” Watkins recalled. “Our people understood that education and jobs and political empowerment were all intertwined.” The radical infrastructure of the civil rights movement helped facilitate Lumumba’s victory as well, given that he and other MXGM members registered through the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party rather than the state’s traditional Democratic Party. The parallel forms of governance established to contest white supremacy more than fifty years ago continue to hold promise for a wider freedom in Mississippi and beyond.

This visionary approach allowed the work of Lumumba to thrive even after his death. In his eight months in office, Lumumba passed a one percent sales tax increase to pay for local infrastructure repairs, a move that passed with over ninety percent support. When he died suddenly in February 2014, his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, ran to take his seat in the special election. With significantly depressed turnouts, Antar lost to a developer-friendly candidate, Tony Yarber. Yarber scrapped many of Lumumba’s achievements before being mired in scandal and mismanagement. In 2017, Antar ran again for mayor and won handily. After his victory, he said he hoped to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.”

The romanticizing of Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X leads some pundits to pine for the Next Great Leader. The patriarchal implications of this have been roundly criticized. Many activists rightly point to Ella Baker’s insight that a “strong people don’t need strong leaders” to emphasize the necessity of collective leadership. Lumumba’s work in Jackson offers a different gloss on that truism: strong movements are able to withstand the loss of individual leaders. Lumumba himself suggested as much when he said that “a movement that secures the love and confidence of the people has no bounds.”

That is why, four years after his passing, it is possible to mourn Lumumba’s untimely death while celebrating the auspicious growth of the political project he helped nurture: economic democracy, ecological sustainability, and Black self-determination. Chokwe Lumumba may have fallen, but Jackson is rising.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.

Comments on “Chokwe Lumumba and Black Nationalist Convergence

  • Thanks for this brief, but concise, acknowledgement of a man who could possibly stand as the standard-bearer, example and benchmark for future generations of Black Nationalists who enter the hazy and crazy world of white politics.

    Reply

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