Not A Liberal: Can A Black Mayor Bring Change To Mississippi?
Above Photo: Chokwe Lumumba: ‘We are against the Mississippi state flag. We are against oppression and all of those monuments, relics and images that promote it or memorialize it’ Photograph: Julie Dermansky
34-year-old attorney Chokwe Lumumba sees his election win as proof that even in a red state in the age of Trump, many people are ready to be progressive
The day Chokwe Lumumba’s father died in 2014, he asked for a moment to be alone in the room with the man he’d long considered his best friend. He told his dad, Chokwe Sr, then the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, all the last things he had to tell him. He prayed and asked god to put his father’s spirit into him. Then, he said, his next move became immediately apparent.
“I decided at that moment, though I shared it with nobody, that I was going to run for mayor,” Lumumba said. “There were a lot of people who were hopeful under his administration, and there was a lot of fear surrounding his loss, so I wanted to restore hope for people.”
The 34-year-old attorney who had “never run for junior class president, let alone mayor” now holds the keys to the state’s most populous city. He brings with him a progressive agenda and much of the leftover to-do list of his father’s administration. He sees his victory – collecting 93% of the vote in Jackson’s 6 June election – as proof that even in a deep red Republican state, and even in the age of Trump, the city’s residents are ready to move in a new progressive direction.
“The citizens of Jackson have demonstrated overwhelmingly a readiness to be a progressive city and not only to correct the ills as we see them, but to be a model for the nation of what progressive leadership and collective genius can accomplish.”
‘I describe myself as a revolutionary’
It’s hard not to conjure allusions to young Obama when Lumumba walks in the room. Perhaps it’s the African-sounding name, the slightness of build or the warm smile and effortless personability. Lumumba has a beard wisped with salt and pepper streaks, and a better fitting suit than Obama did circa 2004, but otherwise the nostalgia connects.
Like Obama, Lumumba spent much of his formative years around radical voices of black liberation, engrossed in community work and navigating a budding career as a gifted young black law professional before moving into the world of electoral politics.
Unlike Obama, Lumumba hasn’t found voice in the post-partisan and post-racial vernacular that propelled Obama to the presidency and onwards to international respect and appeal. Lumumba is still quite unapologetic both in his political and racial language and aspirations.
In explaining how he seeks to engage with his city’s police department, Lumumba quotes Malcolm X. Phrases like “self-determination”, a favorite of 1960s black power activists, enjoy a privileged place in his lexicon. Asked if he considers himself a “liberal”, Lumumba retorts, “I describe myself as a revolutionary.”
On the Mississippi state flag – one which still incorporates the confederate battle flag into its design and flies all over his city – Lumumba doesn’t equivocate. “We are against the Mississippi state flag. We are against oppression and all of those monuments, relics and images that promote it or memorialize it,” Lumumba said. “So long as we are shy about speaking up against that then we’re not prepared to be the best of the new South. We’re still a part of the noose South.”
Jackson is deeply steeped in that that history. The city was all but burned to the ground by Union troops during the Civil War and during reconstruction the backlash from local whites was swift. Jackson was the home of the first Mississippi “red shirts”, a postbellum white supremacist organization served as the militarized wing of a broader “Mississippi Plan” to effectively purge black Mississippians from civic life through intimidation, violence and discriminatory “black code” and Jim Crow legislation.
This was part of why the state, and in particular the city of Jackson, became something of a flashpoint in the 1960s civil rights movement. Freedom rides destined for Jackson saw participants beaten and bloodied by mobs of angry whites. In 1963 Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was shot and killed here. Its reputation as a bastion of white racism is part of what made the city attractive to a whole generation of black activists, like Lumumba’s father, who migrated from Detroit when Chokwe Jr was just five to try and create radical change.
But Lumumba also seems to embody some of the pragmatism and ideological flexibility of a second generation radical. “Jackson is going to be a business friendly city. We want business to come here and want you to make a lot of money. We want you to be rich,” Lumumba said, convincingly. “However we want you to invest back in our city. We’re looking for a reciprocal relationship where those businesses see the value in our city and see the value in the people in the city.”
Lumumba said that this flexibility was something he learned from his late father. Lumumba Sr is ever present in his son’s administration. His photograph hangs in city hall just above where he spoke to the Guardian, and his former chief of staff, Dr Safiya Omari has reprised her role for Lumumba Jr.
Lumumba Sr was, all his life, a committed Black nationalist and activist. He was an early disciple and leader in the Republic of New Afrika, a nationalist group founded in the 1970s that sought to build an autonomous black republic in the region where the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina sit, and to collect billions of dollars in reparations from the US government for the wealth generated by US slavery on the labor of enslaved black Americans. Interestingly, the group’s ambitious political aspirations were recently fictionalized for a forthcoming Amazon Studios series called Black America.
Pothole to pothole
Coming from this background, Lumumba Sr’s eventual foray into Jackson’s city council and eventually the mayor’s office was hardly a given.
“For quite some time I think a lot of his work was was more antagonistic to electoral politics than anything,” Lumumba said of his father. “Many of his comrades were hardliners and so people would ask him, ‘Chokwe, how do you plan on [having reparations paid] by fixing potholes’,” a common metaphor for the quotidian concerns that dominate the day to day of small city governance.
“A pothole may seem like a small thing in the grand scheme, but what [Chokwe Sr] said is that ultimately we have to connect pothole to pothole and community to community so that people in Jackson, Mississippi understand why there is a community that looks just like theirs in Gary, Indiana or Detroit, Michigan, or New Orleans Louisiana,” all of which are economically depressed, predominantly black cities.
“The true issue is that none of the people in those areas truly have an opportunity to dictate when a pothole is being repaired. None of them truly have self-determination. So by meeting people where they are and addressing those concerns, we’re able to have larger discussions about how we develop and create a new society.”
That was the type of vision that got the elder Lumumba elected in 2013. He promised citizen-centered government and passionately sold residents, black and white alike, on a tax increase to rebuild the city’s crumbling infrastructure. But just eight months into his term, Lumumba died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm at age 66, leaving both the city and his then 31-year-old son to grieve.
Lumumba Jr ran for his father’s seat in 2013 but lost a close election to Tony Yarber, then the city council president and a more seasoned Jackson politician, a loss he says he’s gained a lot of strength from.“It better prepared me to understand the condition of the city,” he said.
Defeating Yarber in this year’s democratic primary 55% to 5% was a much less metaphorical success. It all but guaranteed him the mayorship in the predominantly black, strongly Democratic city of Jackson.
Less than two months since inauguration, Lumumba is putting the pieces of his administration together and still often speaks in the meta-transformational language that campaigns thrive on, waxing poetic on “collective genius”, “people-centered government” and on how his election really belongs to the people.
“I don’t believe that we’re going to bring Jackson into a better place because I have all of the ideas, but because we’re willing as an administration to listen to other people,” he said, outlining his hopes to build an inclusive budget-writing process for the next cycle.
What Jackson and hopeful progressives around the country now wait to see, is whether or not that energy and intention will translate to “filling the potholes” and getting the proverbial trains to run on time.