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After Death of Radical Mayor, Mississippi's Capital Wrestles With His Economic Vision

Mayor Chokwe Lumumba implemented only the first steps of his plan to address Jackson's extreme income inequality, which most seriously affected black residents. Now the city faces a choice between vastly different approaches to economic development.
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Photo by Laura Flanders.

Jackson residents Kali Akuno, Nia Umoja, and Brandon King (left to right) discuss economic development plans in the city. Photo by Laura Flanders.

On his way into work every morning, Chokwe Lumumba, the late mayor of Jackson, Miss., used to pass a historical marker:  “Jackson City Hall: built 1846-7 by slave labor.”

The building, like the city around it, came into being when African American lives didn’t count for much. Unpaid black workers created Mississippi’s plantation fortunes; as recently as the 1960s, their descendants were still earning $3 to $6 a day as sharecropper farmers. Today, black Jacksonians are almost 10 times as likely as white residents to live in poverty or surrounded by it. There’s no need for a historical marker to trace the roots of the city’s enormous wealth gap. The question is how to narrow it.

Lumumba had the vision of a radical, but the manners of a movement-builder.

Mayor Lumumba had a plan. Believing that history of a new sort could be made here in Jackson, he sought to use public spending to boost local wealth through worker owned cooperatives, urban gardening, and a community-based approach to urban development. His vision, developed over years in social movements, not only prized black experience and drew on the survival strategies that black Americans had come up with over the decades, but also set out to prioritize in the city’s policies the very people who until now had been on the bottom of the state's list. The goal, he said, was “revolutionary transformation.”

In promoting what he called “solidarity economics,” Mayor Lumumba was continuing a long tradition. “Name any famous African American leader, Ella Baker, [W. E. B.] Dubois, Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, they were all proponents of co-ops,” says Jessica Gordon Nembhard, author of Collective Courage, a new book on the African American experience with worker-owned cooperatives.

“I can’t find any era when most of our leaders weren’t talking about co-ops in one form or another,” says Gordon Nembhard.

“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,” Mayor Lumumba told me this February in Jackson.

Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 25, he died after just seven months in office. Now Jacksonians are working to keep his vision alive, not just for the sake of their city, but as a model of alternative development for the nation.

Jackson City Hall photo by Jimmy Emerson

The solidarity economy

Jackson Mississippi

Image by astudio/Shutterstock.

The capital city of Mississippi, population 175,000, Jackson is home to some of the poorest citizens in the nation and a higher percentage of African Americans than any other city except Detroit (just under 80 percent).

The racial wealth gap is extreme—laid down, like the city’s infrastructure, decades back. A few years ago, the federal government stepped in, threatening the city with massive fines if the infrastructure crisis wasn’t addressed. But no federal agency stepped in to address the inequality crisis.

Which is why the election last summer of a new mayor who took race and poverty seriously, was a big deal, not only in Jackson, but around the country.

According to a 2013 study by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the gap between the rich and the poor grew more in Mississippi in the last few years than in any other state.  (The top fifth of households saw a 19 percent gain in income from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s, while the bottom quintile of earners saw a 17.3 percent drop.)

Chokwe Lumumba photo courtesy of Jackson Rising
Remembering Chokwe Lumumba
Can you be a revolutionary and a mayor? Chokwe Lumumba did his best to be both.

Lots of leaders talk about reducing poverty and inequality. But Mayor Lumumba ran on an innovative plan to do it and received 85 percent of the vote in June 2013, after beating out the the incumbent mayor and a well-funded former businessman in the Democratic primary. A former public defender and longtime radical activist, Lumumba had the organizing support of the group he co-founded, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, along with the Jackson People's Assembly, a neighborhood-based participatory democracy group, and the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition, which he’d helped to convene after Hurricane Katrina.

Short of funds, but rich in organizers, Lumumba advanced what he called “The People’s Platform” to revitalize the city—not by chasing away the people with problems but by tackling the wealth gap’s underpinnings: the asset and income disparities that drive populations apart.

“Mayors typically don’t do the things we’re trying to do,” he said. "On the other hand, revolutionaries don’t typically find themselves as mayor.”

Typically, mayors attempt to increase their city’s “assets” and reduce their “liabilities” through promising investors they’ll provide high-quality services at low prices and cutting taxes and crime rates. This February, Lumumba said he’d be doing “some” of that, but he also had a larger goal. Not urban renewal through what he called “urban removal,” but urban revivalfor everyone.

“The mission is to accomplish economic development together,” he said.

When it comes to oppression in America, said Lumumba, Mississippians had experienced the worst of it for a long time. In terms of exploitation, disinvestment, deindustrialization and so-called “white flight,” he said:

What’s exciting to me is the prospect of going from worst to first … to take groups of dispossessed black folks here and others, and make us controllers of our own destiny.

The city’s old infrastructure and its corroded pipes, he believed, could actually help.

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