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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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Sweet Potatoes photo by Natalie Maynard

Jackson farmers market. Photo by Natalie Maynard.

Jackson rises

The immediate threat poor blacks face today in Jackson comes from outside developers and speculators with the resources to move in and take over their neighborhoods.

Nia Umoja belongs to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. She moved to West Jackson last year with her husband. For just $1,500 they were able to purchase a single family home a couple of blocks off Capitol Street (a major east-west thoroughfare), within walking distance of the city zoo and Jackson State University.

Like the majority of the homes around hers, Umoja’s house needs work. When she moved in, the empty plots on two sides of hers were overgrown with high, scrubby trees and bushes. According to recent surveys, some 40 percent of the lots nearby are abandoned or vacant. Eighty-eight percent of the population lives in poverty. Payday lending stores outnumber groceries 10 to one.

“You have to start with what you have to get what you want,” community organizers say. What West Jackson has is a lot of overgrown land, a lot of underemployed labor, and a good amount of (albeit rusty) farming experience.

“The people here have lost their voice, but they’re not resource-less,” Umoja told me. When she surveyed her neighbors about their assets, she found that while they may not have considered themselves “skilled,” they had talents. “They grew up on farms,” explained Umoja. “They know how to grow things.”

In August 2013, Umoja helped establish the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson with the hope of establishing a cooperative farm. Under Mayor Lumumba, the group was able to clear 1.5 acres of vacant city-owned land just off Capitol Street. Near the north end of the plot sits an abandoned Dairy Queen whose forecourt would make a great green market, she says, if only she could get the long-absentee owner to agree to sell, or the city to take it over.

Umoja and her colleagues have grand plans for what they are calling the Grenada Street Folk Garden, but private developers are already coming around and just a few blocks away, lots are already selling for $40,000 to $80,000.

Some would like to see gentrification come to West Jackson, like it came to the city’s North Midtown section. That area too, was a high crime, low income, low-property-price area not long ago. Now it’s one of the city's leading neighborhoods, thanks to development funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. With help from Habitat for Humanity and private “green” developers, the Jackson Housing Authority demolished dilapidated houses, retrofitted others, and watched rents and property prices rise.

In 2012, a group of institutional stakeholders in West Jackson—a group including Jackson State University, the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the Jackson Zoo, Jackson-Evers Municipal Airport, and the Voice of Jackson Calvary Ministries (a church group)—hired Duvall Decker Architects, the same firm that worked on North Midtown, to draw up a master plan for West Jackson. Some are already calling it the “Capitol Street Corridor.”

At a community meeting convened by architect Roy Decker this February, Umoja and Akuno were shown half a dozen colorful maps, detailing “assets” and “concerns” in the West Jackson neighborhood. On Decker’s maps, the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson sits on plots featuring almost no assets and many “concerns,” including homelessness, crime, a high proportion of vacant properties, and few businesses or public services. Still, when Umoja got a chance to describe her garden plan, the response was mostly positive.

“Sounds good. Like hog-killing time in the old days,” said one resident.

“We just have to work harder to get the word out,” Umoja said.

Whether change is driven by worker owned co-ops or outside speculators, it’s going to take some doing to achieve “revolutionary transformation” in Jackson. Investment is driven by demand, says Mukesh Kumar, professor of urban planning at Jackson State University, and right now, Jackson has very little of that. Downtown is already circled by a big sticky suburban ring, sucking shoppers, contractors, and prime business out of the city's center.

The Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce, which backed the North Midtown plan, is setting its hopes for growth on further development of the city’s “medical corridor,” the building of a 1,500-acre downtown lake, and an arts and culture expansion to “attract talent.”

It’s hard to see how any of those plans will work. Several major hospitals (including Baptist Health Systems, University of Mississippi Medical Center, and St. Dominic's) and as many major colleges have left the inner-city core poor up to this point. For tourists, Jackson’s competing with Nashville and New Orleans.

At least Mayor Lumumba’s plan to stimulate internal demand through local employment in public works has a proven track record. Federal public works programs helped recovery after the Great Depression, just as reconstruction projects helped rebuild the south after the Civil War (until they fell victim to Jim Crow). As civil rights organizers learned, for people to participate in the political process, their economic necessities need to be seen to. After years of ineffective government, Jackson needs both political, as well as economic revival.

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Lumumba had the vision of a radical, but the manners of a movement-builder. He reached across political lines to build support for his plan. One of his first calls after his election was to Duane O’Neal, head of the Jackson Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Before Lumumba’s death, O’Neal said he’d already had more and “more meaningful” meetings with the new mayor than he did with the preceding administration in all the 16 years they had been in office. Lumumba won respect because, as O’Neal put it to me, “he’s shown himself to be a man of action.”

Lumumba’s mission was “development together.” He understood his goal was, as much as anything else, to re-engage the city.

“The job is not a single individual affair but a collective affair, and the creation of jobs is not an individual affair but a collective [one.]”

Cooperation in the handful of urban gardens currently in Jackson, has already brought people together, says Akuno. What Jackson does not yet have are any worker, producer or housing cooperatives. Only a few cooperative Credit Unions operate within the city limits. Jackson Rising seeks to change that.

With only a few months to go, organizers of the Jackson Rising conference were struggling this February with how to appeal simultaneously to entrepreneurially minded students and Nia Umoja’s hard-up neighbors. Charlotte and Luke Landemeaux, founders of Jackson’s one existing food co-op, Rainbow Foods, (incorporated in Delaware), were feeling anxious about competition from Jackson’s first Whole Foods, which has just opened its doors. But everyone’s immediate problem was a good one. The first in a series of “Grassroots Economics” meetings, intended to build to the May conference, was filled to capacity.

In the 1960s, when they were fighting for bottom-up democracy, Fannie Lou Hamer and the members of SNCC used to say “The people must decide.”

Chokwe Lumumba and the Jackson Peoples Assembly used this phrase over and over during his campaign. Even though he’s gone, it’s hard not to hear those words echoing around Jackson more loudly than ever.

As they ask themselves which way forward for Jackson and Jacksonians, the answer comes: “The people must decide.”

Laura Flanders headshotLaura Flanders wrote this article for YES! Magazine's Commonomics project. Laura is YES! Magazine's 2014 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of "GRITtv with Laura Flanders." Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.

Natalie Lubsen contributed research to this article.

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