Chokwe Lumumba, an extraordinary leader with a vision of liberation forged in the 1960s Black Power movement, died on Tuesday after eight transformational months in office as Mayor of Jackson, Miss.
A founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an activist attorney, and a former City Council member, Lumumba was elected Mayor of Jackson 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 and his goal was “revolutionary transformation.” He not only inspired his own community, but he also disarmed his critics with a tireless commitment to building support for his twin goals of political and economic democracy.
“The mission is to accomplish economic development together,” he told me in an interview just two weeks before his sudden death by heart attack. We met in his office in Jackson City Hall on February 12 to talk about “solidarity economics” for an upcoming article for YES! Magazine’s Commonomics project.
Here is our full conversation.
Laura Flanders: First off, congratulations on your election.
Chokwe Lumumba: Thank you.
Flanders: What do you want to accomplish?
“I went to law school to defend people who had no one to defend them and causes that nobody would defend.”
Lumumba: We want to accomplish a revolutionary transformation. We are party to statistics which demonstrate that our people, black people in particular and probably the majority of the Mississippi population, are at the worst end of all the vital statistics. When it comes to the discussion of oppression in America, we’ve been experiencing the worst of it for a long time. What’s exciting to me is the prospect of going from worst to first in a forward-moving transformation which is going to take groups of dispossessed black folks here and others and make us controllers of our own destiny.
We are not foolish enough to think that it is a mission that can probably be accomplished here in the absence of fundamental movement in the rest the world, but we think we can start that movement and help carry it forward, and help advance it in a really powerful way. So that’s what excites us.
Flanders: And your specific goals?
Lumumba: We find ourselves in a situation where we are in the “Kush” district. Kush is an ancient name for an area around Egypt, which in ancient times, encompassed a historically black community which became the genesis of Egypt and Ethiopia and others. We use the terminology to refer to a “black belt,” areas which are predominantly black, but there’s a distinct reference to a formation of black counties in Mississippi: Tunica to Wilkinson, all contiguous, 18 counties, 17 of them majority black including Hinds county where Jackson sits, only one majority white, and it teeters on the edge of being majority black.
“Kush,” the concept, is larger than Mississippi. It goes across the border into Louisiana and the predominantly black counties of Louisiana and Southeast Arkansas. This is really a broader area than where we are, but we in Mississippi are the center of commerce of that area. We’re 85 percent black. This is an important area because it gives us a chance to demonstrate real vitality, to vindicate that terminology of black power which was used years ago, but was so much in search of definition at the time.
Flanders: What do you mean?
Lumumba: We knew we were getting short-changed in the whole so-called integrationist movement, which in truth was a struggle for democratic rights; in our struggle against Jim Crow, we knew we were coming up short. And so we defined ourselves as being in a struggle for Black Power and became a black liberation movement with various different objectives. One which was central which we set out for ourselves was for us to develop a sense of self-determination for all people in America. And this is a region where that purpose is particularly important and where it can be particularly achieved, or at least get off the starting blocks. That’s the vision.
Flanders: And how does that vision intersect with your mayoralty? What tools do you have in your tool box as mayor to make that sort of change?
Lumumba: We’re still figuring that out. We’re still unpacking. We know it’s not the normal things mayors do. …
Flanders: Which is?
Lumumba: Mayors normally help out the economic powers-that-be and try to make sure they can avoid the issue of crime as much as possible, and point to prosperity by moving and shuffling people around in a gentrifying set of circumstances, by trying to get the poor people out of town and getting rich people in.
We are way different than that and we don’t mind saying it. In fact, we just had an interesting discussion at the city council where one of the councilmen (I like to think partly inspired by my inauguration speech), actually brought up a resolution against gentrification and it was part of a conversation which got us to try to explain the problems with gentrification and why we want to move ahead.
Flanders: Can you be a revolutionary and a mayor?
Lumumba: Mayors typically don’t do the things we’re trying to do. On the other hand, revolutionaries don’t typically find themselves as mayor.
Change does not come on thoughts alone; because we have a revolutionary ideology and give speeches on it. It comes because you can change the material conditions of people, and get people to assist in the change, be the mainstay in the change in their conditions. And so, how do we achieve that, that’s the real challenge for us. We don’t think we can do it in the way we did it in the 60s and 70s. We raised up millions of people in fiery speeches and that was good—I’m in love with that period—but at the same time, the people been suffering for a while and fiery speeches are not going to do it.
We’ve got to tell them how we’re going to fix their streets; how we’re going to feed them, how are they going to eat, where are they going to live. How are they going to avoid being in a neighborhood which goes unattended for so long that it becomes a target for urban renewal which is really just urban removal and then they lose their homes and they turn around and they’ve got condominiums there, and they can’t afford to buy a condo and then they’re shuffled out to the outskirts of the city where once again, they find themselves in another community of poverty, or even in a community of poverty outside the city.
How the kids are going to get a real education as opposed to just showing up to school and being on the pipeline to prison? Those are the material things we’ve got to change. That’s an exploration process. It doesn’t require any less knowledge or commitment to the ideals we started off with, but it requires the ability to translate the message in ways that people can understand and become part of and can teach us. We have to understand the language of the people.
Flanders: Typically mayors cut taxes, grant subsidies to potential employers, create low tax or no tax empowerment zones and woo big-box stores to come to their town. How much of that will you do?
Lumumba: We’re going to be doing some of that. Some of that is involved. We have to create economy. That has to happen. What is revolutionary is that we want to convert this economy into something different at some point. But you have to create economy and what you convert it to is not necessarily what creates it. And so for instance the idea that we started out this administration on is infrastructure: We have to convert infrastructure into economic growth.
“Even though we’re great revolutionaries, we’re worried about the potholes in our street too.”
When we talk about economic growth, we’re not talking about bringing a bunch of companies in that can make a bunch of bucks and hope they spend ’em in our city. We’re talking about creating jobs, creating new companies and then we move from there to talk about cooperatives which can become some of those jobs, some of the solidarity economy where we can begin to band together people so they’ll understand that a job is not a single individual affair but a collective affair; the creation of jobs is not an individual affair but a collective. The mission is to accomplish economic development together.
We have to convert and teach that. It is our view that you can accomplish that better by putting people in a position where there is some production coming forth in the economy rather than people [being] worried about survival every day of their lives, for whom it’s difficult to confront anything because they’re fighting just for existence. So what we’re doing is creating movement and economy by that infrastructure thing. And we’ve done things in order to raise revenue, which is going to go into our infrastructure. We’re going to use that to create jobs, and expand job creation to nontraditional companies.
Flanders: By revenues you mean the one percent sales tax the electorate passed by referendum this January?
Lumumba: The sales tax as well as, we raised water rates and sewer rates. Ours were the lowest in southeast—only half as much as next place—and that was true because [as a city] we had kicked the can down the road, promising we’d fix the water system but really not being equipped to do it. What we did is we started by trying to raise revenues, and now it’s our obligation to make sure those revenues fall into the hands of people and to keep seeking other revenues from those forces who should be paying and aren’t doing it. We’ll be making some demands of the state and federal government, but in addition, we’ll be figuring out ways to get the corporations to pay their fair share.
Flanders: Where does the solidarity economy come in?
Lumumba: As we do, in order to create a permanent atmosphere of change, that’s where the solidarity economy of change comes in. You don’t want to simply invest in what exists already hoping that the next group of entrepreneurs are not as greedy as the last one.
Flanders: A lot of people think co-ops are a hippie thing.
Lumumba: I can understand that [laughs]. There’s a little hippie in all of us. And I think the hippies probably got a lot of it from what used to happen in Africa. What are the real roots of it? We feel—Black people feel—that the roots are shared in an understanding of a common culture where economy is something to be shared by all people together.
The economic fate of everybody is in the hands of everybody. And so the movement of society depends on “Ujumahaa,” meaning cooperative economics, or “Ujemma,” [meaning] cooperative work and responsibility, two of the principles of Kwanzaa. Those are some of the principles we think come from our native mother/father land, which are healthy principles and which, in many instances, hippie communities and other communities tried to adopt at different points in time. We feel we have to return to those principles in a practical way and make it work in neighborhoods that we live in.
Flanders: What did you learn and who from?
Lumumba: I learned from a powerful movement, perhaps one of the most powerful movements the world has ever known and it’s still going on. It has declined, but we’re trying to make sure that we build it back up. I stepped into the picture at a time when a great civil rights movement had taken place and people who had been denied fundamental democratic rights and civil rights had stood up: Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, and had won to the degree that it was clear that our claims to fair treatment were beginning to be universally recognized and accepted as legitimate, inevitable claims.
However, at the point I stepped in, there was still a power vacuum, and so as I learned from what Fannie Lou and Medgar had done and specifically spent many hours with SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people discussing what had gone on, I recognized that instead of gaining power we were really losing power. We weren’t gaining power from what had been going on.
Flanders: Please explain.
“I’ll be bringing youth into summer jobs programs, urban development programs.”
Lumumba: How to say it? The oppressed have kind of a perverted power because they had segregated communities, at that time, where business was able to flourish, and those were dying. They were losing the economic trappings, if you will, of the segregationist system because the markets that blacks had controlled were beginning now to decline. And we can take you to streets here that manifest that decline. People were turning from being just poor to being destitute. Not only in cities, but in rural communities where people who had land, and could grow some food and cook you some food—you worked for SNCC and they could cook you some food. Well they couldn’t cook you no food because their land had been taken from them.
All of this was occurring and simultaneously the need to manifest the exercise of self-defense was apparent. You had a situation where Jackson State students had just been killed and that wasn’t unique. It was happening all the time. Civil Rights workers had been killed. And so many had been killed before they were killed.
I was influenced by Kwame Ture, by Malcolm X. Still am. And one of the things that’s part of that influence [was the idea that] it’s time to step away from unmitigated attacks on our people without response. We were in a period. Imari Obadele—president of the Republic of New Afrika. Muhammad Ahmad … Amiri Baraka … all of these and of course … Queen Mother Moore. These were people who equipped us to get through that period because they taught that two things were needed: [First,] self-determination. That’s why we have a power vacuum, because you don’t control your own destiny, your don’t own your own land, you don’t govern any territory.
And secondly, you’ve got to defend yourself. The whole idea of water hoses and dogs may have been great to demonstrate what kind of place this was. You never want to plan to have your own people get killed or slaughtered, but the reality is, we’ve seen that in many other places in the world. At a certain point, you have an obligation to curtail that without giving up the struggle.
Flanders: Can you tell us about the Republic of New Afrika?
Lumumba: My teachers called ourselves the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika and we believed it. We believed in everything that the RNA declaration of independence said in terms of the aims of the revolution. We were really ahead of our times for a “nationalist” organization in that we said we were for a society which promoted and demanded equal treatment regardless of gender, color, or class.
We came to the center of white supremacy. Absolutely antithetical to who we were. And we fought it in many different ways: physically, teaching, in the courts. I did a bit of all of it, but the reality is God blessed me to come out of the period—not to be killed, not to be destroyed emotionally and psychologically as so many were—blessed me to the point that when we decided to readapt some of our tactics, to not do the old Panther thing, where you barricaded yourselves in and shot back if the police came, but to have a community approach where clearly you’d defend yourself if you had to, but you recognized that your biggest defense is your community, and the work you did in that community and helping the children in that community. We began to adopt youth programs and many others.
I went to law school to defend people who had no one to defend them and causes that nobody would defend. And in that way we really integrated ourselves along with a lot of other people who’d been doing that kind of work. But we also had a political program that talked about power. Not just defending yourself today against the system, but how do you take power within the system?
Flanders: What will you actually be doing to develop economic and political democracy?
Lumumba: We have to do a lot of community development. We will be urging people to participate in our community programs, which deal with things like gardening; something that pulls the whole community together in something that shares cooperatively the produce. [We’ll be] dealing with security. Pulling people together to deal with security. We’ve started a “not on my block” project to stand against antisocial behavior. We passed an anti-racial-profiling law. We’re seeking to pass a human rights commission through the City Council, like a police review board although a human rights commission is broader.
We will be trying to organize the community in such a way as we incorporate housing programs. We have to create housing that grows the people with the economy.
At the same time, the unique position that we’re in is that I’m the mayor. [Laughs] I can talk about a lot of things and actually try to do a lot of things we couldn’t have done years ago, but at no point am I in a position where I can do all the things that the people need for liberation. The question becomes how to keep that liberation movement going? I’ll be encouraging youth to get involved in that liberation movement; bringing youth into summer jobs programs, urban development programs, and at core of curriculum is going to be an understanding of who they are and what they should be fighting to achieve. That’s the training of the future and that’s why it’s so important.
Flanders: How would you describe the pressures you’re under?
Lumumba: I think there’s pressure on every mayor who’s trying to do the right thing by their people, and that’s the pressure of a capitalist society, which does not want to give up a dime. They basically want to constrain the people in every way they can. Gentrification is a big part of that—housing declines in certain areas and grows in other. Inequality is a part of that.
What makes us a little bit different is we’re not just trying to defend ourselves against that sort of stuff, we’re trying to destroy that kind of stuff. We’re trying to defeat that. We want to create something different. We don’t just want to carve out a spot on the globe where we don’t get affected by it as much as the next guy. We’re trying to destroy it not only here but all over the world.
Flanders: What do you mean by “it”?
Lumumba: By “it” I mean capitalism, exploitation, racism. You know, Dr. King gave a speech at Riverside Church that I’d never listened to until a few years ago—I read it and it’s just as good as anything Malcolm ever said. He identified “three evils”: racism, economic exploitation, militarism.
Those are the kind of things that we really want to destroy. The destruction of it is going to take many forms. The maturity of our movement is we can work with different forms and different approaches.
That makes us different and puts a different burden on us and it’s not as big as it’s going to be. Right now a lot of people are just trying to figure us out. The people have figured us out. That was an election that didn’t get won because of money. We had the support of folks who had an opportunity to see what people close to me had done for many years: working with young people, food programs, youth programs, anti-crime programs, a wealth of programs trying to help folks.
Flanders: I just came from talking with Duane O’Neill, the president of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. Are you concerned about how he might react if I go away and say that you’re for destruction of capitalism?
Lumumba: No. I think that ultimately we define ourselves. We’ve taken a big step forward and as we take steps forward, we have to consciously put out our message and try to make it equivalent to what will continue to move the movement forward. There are things you could talk about that would probably set the movement back. But you have an obligation to teach the people because if we don’t we’ll become obsolete like anything else. I like Duane. I don’t like people I like to be mad at me, but we’re beyond that and we’re beyond worrying what somebody thinks about us personally.
We represent something that they need to do and what they’re trying to do… that’s why Duane and I have come into contact in the first place. Our economic development theme, development through infrastructure, is the only thing that’s on the table in Jackson. They don’t have a way forward for what we’re talking about. What we have to be careful of is that they don’t take our way forward and take it someplace else.
Hopefully, we can convince Duane and other people that what we’re talking about is best for everybody, not just the oppressed or black people or poor people, but best for enlightened people and we give speeches like that. We do. I don’t know what part of it they believe.
Flanders: In 1907 W.E. B. Du Bois talked about black America being at a crossroads between individualist competition and capitalist exploitation and cooperation… Doesn’t the history of the 20th century suggest that black people chose? They wanted their piece of the American Pie?
Lumumba: For the most part, most of us didn’t do very well with the choice. People have to reexamine where they are and maybe even redefine some things. We don’t go out in the community and talk about capitalism and say we have to destroy capitalism. That’s something we would have done years ago. We were ideologues.
We’re still carriers of the message, but at the same time we have to be movers of the people. We’re still saying the same things when we go out there and say gentrification is not going to be accepted, that businesses can’t come in and refuse to hire who we say they should hire, and we start beating on the door of the chamber and talk about cooperatives and businesses that serve the people. We’re saying where we’re going but we’re not using trigger words that trigger a resistance to what we’re trying to do at this particular point of time. Come to a class at the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, perhaps, and that’s a different thing. We want everyone to be enlightened to the language that describes political events, but we also want to use language that communicates…
I tell a story, perhaps I tell it too much, of campaigning for city council in a black neighborhood called Presidential Hills. I’d lay out all the things I wanted to do and after everything I said, a lady there would say: “We need love.” I’d lay out some more things and she’d say again, “We need love.”
I came back and laid out my principles leadership, organization, values, education on a flyer [so as to spell out] LOVE and started talking about love. But then there was a lady heard me talking and came up to me; “You’re saying all that about love and doing all these great things but how are you going fix that pothole?”
First of all, even though we’re great revolutionaries, we’re worried about the potholes in our street too. How we create the recognition that the potholes are part of the repression—where they’re repaired and where they don’t get repaired… All of those things you can give more attention to in the position we’re in now. Now we have to be very specific.
Flanders: Thank you. Last question. The City of Jackson sits in a particular place, atop two tropes of American capitalism: that you get ahead by work and you can find land to call your own. Jackson sits in the middle of the old Confederacy, on land seized by the Andrew Jackson from the native Americans. I couldn’t help thinking, passing that sign on the city hall that reads “built by slave labor” that that makes this place a particularly significant place for what you’re trying to do. Do you think about that as you walk through the door?
Lumumba: This is the place and this is a special place. 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’ lives and their lives, those are the right people. And this is the right time; the people make that true. The people make the time, because the election of the leadership is a reflection of the readiness of the people. And the fact that they have decided to put into leadership a group of people who have dedicated their lives to revolutionary change and had an opportunity to chose otherwise, says a lot for why we are about to transform this situation in Jackson … to a vital situation to change the world.
Flanders: And what role does solidarity play?
Lumumba: The role of solidarity economics is central because it is the economic transition from what is to what must be.
Flanders: Is Jackson rising?
Lumumba: We’re open for business, for people to come down and live. If you have a cooperative you want to put together or to work with, come on down. Finally, we’re going to be asking for resources, so if you want to do that you can call (601) 960-1084 and ask for Brother Kali. He’ll set you up.
Jackson is rising off the charts and we’re going to have a conference of that name too. That’d be a good time for people to come down and see what we’re doing, in May 2014. Come on down and participate.
The most phenomenal migration in our time is probably to Atlanta where 500,000 black people moved in a 10-year period from 1985 to ’95. Once we get that many moving here to Mississippi, then you will be dealing with the next formation, you can put it that way, one which will be solidly behind revolutionary change and development.