When it comes to politics and policy, I would not consider myself to be a particularly cynical person. Far from it actually; my faith in the power of social movements and grassroots change would not be as strong as it is if I did not hold to the notion that we will see an ultimate victory over the inequalities and oppressions that plague our society. I believe in people, and I believe in communities.
However, it would be accurate to assume that I do not have much faith in politicians or the political parties from which they emanate. I am, after all, old enough to remember a Barack Obama who said that he would walk a picket line as President and repeatedly affirmed his support for a public healthcare option. The breadth of politics today has become a game of Team Blue vs. Team Red, and opposition is based less on ideas than the jersey you wear when you take the court. After all, if it were a Republican Congress and President that had signed a bill that slashed food assistance for low-income families, funded the government on the backs of government employees, and ended unemployment benefits that are still necessary in a sluggish economy, many of the Democratic cheerleaders for “bipartisanship” and “compromise” would be a bit more muted in their praise.
So suffice it to say that when a city councilman named Chokwe Lumumba announced that he was running to be the mayor of Mississippi’s capital city, I was skeptical. Having met Chokwe through her work at the ACLU of Mississippi, my wife told me that he was a legit radical. As I looked him up, that much became evident: student radical who once occupied buildings at Western Michigan University in protest of the paucity of Black faculty; former second Vice President of the Republic of New Afrika; founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; and the lawyer for the Scott Sisters. There was no doubt that this was a person who went the extra mile for his community. Yet as I observed his campaign, I came to the same conclusion that I am sure a lot of other people came to:
He won’t win.
It was easy to feel that. Jackson, a city of about 175,000 located in west central Mississippi, has the second-largest concentration of Black residents of any city with a population over 100,000 at 79.4 percent (Detroit is first in that regard at 82.7 percent). It was not always this way, though: Jackson was a majority-white city as late as the 1980s. But when the last vestiges of Mississippi’s particularly virulent strain of Jim Crow were dismantled in education, housing, and employment, white residents began fleeing to suburbs like Pearl, Clinton, Madison, Brandon, and Ridgeland. As the city emptied out and glistening new shopping centers and housing developments popped up on the outskirts of the metro area, the economic and political power shifted along with it.
The new suburbanites managed to maintain a measure of control over their former neighbors through their ownership of local businesses. Even though Harvey Johnson, Jr. became Jackson’s first Black mayor-elect on June 3, 1997 largely through emphasizing his race on the campaign trail, his administration continued the same policies that had largely benefitted the city’s business community. This trend continued through his first administration, through the unbelievably corrupt term of his successor Frank Melton, and into Johnson’s second administration, which was won by defeating Mayor Melton in the 2009 Democratic primary.
As 2013 approached, it appeared that it would be more of the same. No Republican has served as mayor since 1874, so the winner of the Democratic primary would be the city’s next chief executive. Johnson, the incumbent, was in for re-election, as was city council president Frank Bluntson and Chokwe. Rounding out the top contenders was lawyer Regina Quinn and businessman Jonathan Lee. Bluntson’s stature and local media hype likely outstripped his potential vote total, and he was written off early in the contest. The other four were in the thick of it right up until primary night, though it became clear in the last days that Quinn would be towards the rear of the pack.
As the primary campaign wore on, I began to see more folks speaking positively about Chokwe and using his campaign designs and photos as profile pictures on social media. It piqued my interest. But watching him struggle a bit in his #AskChokwe Twitter chat made me skeptical that he would be able to pull this off; he was slow to answer questions and demonstrated a clear lack of comfort with the medium. It seems ridiculous, but folks care about that sort of thing. Then there was that Jackson Free Press editorial supporting Mayor Johnson in the primary, where they called Chokwe “anti-white” and engaged in the worst sort of false equivalency I have ever seen in an alt-weekly. The stupidity of it was transparent to someone like me, but I worried that the paper’s ideological reputation would lead otherwise supportive white liberals to balk from voting for change. In a race with no white candidates, the division in the Black vote meant that the city’s small white population could make a big difference.
My thought was that Chokwe would finish third, and that Jackson would have the most anticlimactic and meaningless primary runoff in recent memory. There would be no challenge to the status quo. There would be no Jackson Plan. There would only be the continued domination of the city’s institutions by folks who had long ceased calling Jackson home. The city would be much like other mid-sized Southern cities: wallowing in mediocrity and watching the very people who could make a difference leave for the perception of greener pastures.
So imagine my surprise when this happened:
That image was a stab in the heart of the suburbanites and rapacious capitalists who had previously exploited the city that was good enough to make money from, but not good enough to love or care about. It was enough to begin the various campaigns seeking to malign Chokwe’s character, party affiliation, religion, and commitment to his community. They used the same old appeals of “investment flight” and “depopulation” in order to make the city’s residents fear for their economic security. The opposing campaign even started insinuating that Chokwe was an FBI informant by using documents from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which was the primary instrument of the state in harassing and intimidating civil rights organizers. At that point, one thing became clear to me:
They are scared. But wait….if they are scared enough to run these ads and put out these flyers, then could Chokwe actually win this thing?
Sarah and I were driving back from our favorite pizza place in Central New York on the night of the election, and I remember telling her, “I think that Chokwe is going to win this thing. I have a feeling that when the night is through, Jacksonians are going to ignore the bullshit and trust themselves and their city.” A few hours later, we got our confirmation:
As a Southerner, a leftist, and, most importantly, as a Black man, I was over the moon. WE DID IT! We managed to elect a radical Black leftist who was once a lawyer for the Black Panthers as the mayor of a capital city in the South. And not just any capital city, either: a city that once housed such ignoble figures of white supremacist history as Ross Barnett, Theodore Bilbo, and James Vardaman during their terms as Governor.
But how would he govern? If being Black has taught me anything, it is that progressive rhetoric is much easier to come by than progressive action. Many a candidate have claimed the mantle of the “people’s candidate”, only to disappear into the wilderness of power and influence once in office. I needed to see what he was about.
Then this happened at his inauguration:
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!”
Whoa. Did this brother just say raise a fist in the air and say “free the land” at his inauguration?
Inaugural addresses tend to be where all the progressive rhetoric that inspired so many folks turns into meaningless pablum about “unity” and “coming together for the common good”, but not this time. Chokwe’s inaugural address was a defiant affirmation of Blackness and a radical sense of community in a city that had seen precious little of that in its history. Hearing his call to elect people who “not only look like us, but also speak to our interests” was a poignant moment for me in his inauguration speech. Communities of color have long advocated for the idea that institutions should reflect those they serve, and we have gone a long way towards achieving that in the South. But while Jackson had seen sixteen years of unbroken Black leadership, there was little to show for it in the way of concrete policy change for its Black citizens. Nearly 50 years after we first gained free access to the franchise, it is no longer enough that we simply seek descriptive representation; we must seek substantive representation of our interests and aspirations.
Chokwe set about doing this. The part of his plan that got the most attention was the Jackson-Kush Plan, and for good reason: it would be a direct challenge to the economic and political power that currently resided in the suburbs of Hinds, Rankin, and Madison counties. While the other candidates for mayor supported an economic plan that was based within the status quo framework, Chokwe supported a plan that began local before spreading out across the region. While the most discussed portion of this economic plan involved using the human capital within Jackson’s communities to form economic cooperatives where workers had a say in the means of production, there was also a framework to facilitate the growth of urban green spaces and to engage in organizing workers through the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights. This sort of collaborative economic empowerment is something that is rarely seen in the South, and for an elected official to make it a part of their mandate is rarer still.
He would put forth a big budget to accommodate these big aspirations for his city: $502 million, an increase of 43 percent over the previous year. Much of that additional spending was on public works projects that the city badly needed: roads and a sewer system that is in such disrepair as to require a federal mandate that requires the city to bring it to standard. In addition to that, he worked to put a 1-cent sales tax increase on the ballot which would go towards infrastructure improvements. The measure overwhelmingly passed.
Chokwe was becoming a 21st-century embodiment of the “sewer socialist”, those urban elected officials from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who used the power of the state to provide quality public services to as many constituents as possible. Those folks made strides to take socialism out of its theoretical constructs and put it in front of the masses through public administration and works programs. While there have been times in Southern history where leftism has gained a foothold, the space and breadth of that foothold has been fairly limited. And it has never really been a popular concept in Southern cities; the Populist movement was dominated by agrarian leftists in northern Louisiana, northern Alabama, and western North Carolina.
What we were witnessing (and continue to witness) in Jackson was not just unique for the purposes of contemporary Southern politics and urban spaces; it was unprecedented. Anytime I thought about the Jackson experiment, I got excited. Since my arrival in Alabama in the summer of 2011, I have felt like I was in a constant battle with recalcitrant conservatives, centrists, and liberals within the Democratic Party. Much like Chokwe, I have come to consider myself an independent leftist who sees the Democratic Party as a temporary vehicle for change, rather than the driving force behind that change. Seeing Chokwe’s initial successes in Jackson gave me hope that I would live to see a day that Southern progressives would not be faced with the same meaningless choices that we are constantly confronted with when we close that drape behind us and participate in our democracy.
Those hopes were temporarily dashed for me on February 25, 2014.
I was in the midst of making some notes for a student when the news first broke on Facebook. It all seemed so sudden; was this a joke? Had WLBT’s Facebook page been hacked? But when I started seeing tweets from other news stations confirming his death from different sources, I knew that this was real.
I was gutted. I was absolutely sick over this. And then I did something that I never thought I would be able to do over the death of an elected official:
I cried. Hard.
They were tears of devastation and disbelief at first; then pretty quickly turned into tears of anger. At everything, especially God:
I have been through personal stuff with both my family and myself that has always given me the belief that God is real; there is no way that I could believe otherwise. I had read about the vengeful, wrathful God that existed in the Old Testament throughout my youth. In fact, the church that I went to in high school seemed to reinforce the notion that God that was not loving, but rather judgmental of a whole host of behaviors both large and small.
Homosexuality? Hell. Fornication? Hell. Belief in another religion? Hell. Making more money than you could fit through a eye of a needle on Judgment Day? Well…our offices will get back to you about that.
But as I progressed into adulthood, I realized that God was something different. They led me to Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, where I got to hear a Word that was more inclusive, grounded in equality and justice, and progressive than any I had ever heard back home. They led me to vow that I would do everything possible to eliminate the ills — poverty, lack of access to education, oppression of all sorts — that had plagued my family, my community, and myself for generations. They gave me the right lineage to see the workers’ struggle firsthand, how it has persisted through generations, and how Their Word has been a salve to those deep in the fight. The same God that led me down the path I am on also led Chokwe Lumumba down his as well; that was evident in various interviews, his involvement in his own church, and the uniquely Southern style of “progressivism flavored with the Gospel” that had become his staple.
I will never understand why God chose to take Chokwe at a time when his voice is so crucial to everything that I hold dear as a Southerner, a leftist, and as a Black man; none of us will. But it is at times like this where my faith is a crucial component for my ability to move on. And not my faith in God; but rather my faith in movements and communities. We will learn not just from Chokwe, but also from those people who were some of his closest aides and confidants. I am hopeful that he has recorded his thoughts and motivations in some fashion, since it seems to be apparent that his health was worse than most of us realized. It may not be as comprehensive as some other historical figures that have had their bright light extinguished too soon, but those who seek to continue his far-too-important work crave anything that could point us in the right direction. And if that does not materialize, then we will have his speeches, interviews, and family/network to go on. Sometimes that is the best that we can hope for, and we should look to them for signs as to where we go next.
Most of my blog posts are prescriptive; this one will not be. It cannot be, because I still have not sufficiently cycled through my grieving process enough to have a proper account of Chokwe’s legacy. I am still badly wounded from this, and the one thing that is keeping me upright at the moment is the thought that Chokwe and my grandmother are swapping organizing stories with the rest of our fallen at the moment (and if he was anything like my grandmother, it is over a game of bid whist or spades). And, if I am honest, I do not think that anyone can lay out a legacy for Chokwe Lumumba at this time that would be sufficiently unique to the man and the community he served. I would rather grieve first, then reflect, and then chart out appropriate next steps. It might not be timely, but it will also not be cookie-cutter and meaningless; those are two things that were the antithesis of Chokwe Lumumba and his career.
I will, however, keep writing about the South and the ways in which we can make it the kind of place that Chokwe, and the rest of us Southern progressives, want it to be. My hope is when my wife and I are sitting back in our rocking chairs at the twilight of our lives, holding hands and reminiscing on the lives that we have lived, we will be able to say that we achieved that one three-word credo which rang out from Jackson, Mississippi as a clarion call to community-building and working-class empowerment:
FREE THE LAND