Last week, the city of Jackson, Miss., paid its last respects to Chokwe Lumumba. And according to R.L. Nave of the Jackson Free Press, the affair was the kind of black nationalist/pan-Africanist celebration you might expect for one of the nation’s most outspoken black activists:
They came in suits, dresses, dashikis and tunics.
They wore an assortment of headwear, everything from riding caps to berets, kufis, hijab and headwraps.
They invoked Jesus Christ, Allah and the Yoruba orishas. […]
The program last almost five hours and included several musical and poetry tributes.
Jackson State University professor C. Liegh McInnis recited an original poem he wrote titled “Free the Land Man,” a reference to the phrase with which Lumumba often began speeches. McInnis described Lumumba as “our own Afro-American Robin Hood with MXG on his chest,” referring to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an organization Lumumba co-founded.
During his life, Lumumba had big plans for black people. As an attorney, he defended Black Panthers and advocated for reparations for slavery. And at one point, he was the vice president of the Republic of New Afrika, intended to be an independent black nation carved out of the American South.
But during the last eight months of his life, he was the mayor of Jackson, Miss., and he was managing more quotidian political concerns: he needed the streets fixed.
“In his short term in his office, his crowning achievement was raising the local sales tax to fix potholes,” Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, told me. “And he earned high marks by focusing on the things that mayors are supposed to focus on.”
And a lot of the other stuff was beyond his purview. “There was nothing in the Jackson city charter that would have allowed him to turn it into the Republic of New Afrika,” Gillespie quipped.
Even his skeptics conceded how effective Lumumba had been at building coalitions and working with business leaders during his short tenure. “I must confess to you that this time last year, I was concerned [he] was going to divide the city,” Bill Winter, the state’s former governor, said at Lumumba’s funeral. “I could not have been more wrong.”
(“I guess they were expecting a monster,” Lumumba said last month. “And I’m just Chokwe Lumumba, the same person I’ve always been.”)
It made us wonder, though: just how did a black revolutionary who still threw up the Black Power salute on occasion become the mayor of a mid-sized American city in the Deep South?
Gillespie told me that those things aren’t necessarily in tension: part of the reason Lumumba was able to sell wonky, pragmatic things like raising taxes to fix the streets and sewers (the increase needed to be voted on, and needed a 60-percent majority to pass) was because he had that revolutionary street cred. Lumumba’s background might have effectively disqualified him from seeking elected office in another city, but Jackson is 80-percent black and was the home of prominent civil rights activists like Medgar Evers and his wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams. Gillespie said that context was a big reason Jacksonians would be less inclined to hold his radical past against Lumumba.
And Lumumba, notably, never distanced himself from that past. The day after he was elected mayor, he openly questioned the historical importance of Christopher Columbus and suggested that the city’s overwhelmingly black schools might pursue a more Afrocentric curriculum.
But Gillespie told me that it was a little odd that Lumumba’s background proved to be an asset in 2013. There are lots of folks who went from marching and protesting to hold elected office — among others, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Atlanta’s former mayor Andrew Young were both lieutenants of Martin Luther King, while the former Black Panther Bobby Rush has been in Congress for decades — but Gillespie said they assumed office when black politics was more left of center. “Part of it was the novelty of it … it was the first time that blacks would have been running for election and could have won,” she said. “You get your Richard Hatchers, your Coleman Youngs, your people coming out of the movement running for office.”
Today’s black elected officials tend to pitch themselves as moderates or market-oriented technocrats like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who was formerly the mayor of Newark.
(Lumumba’s victory also owes itself to the idiosyncrasies of Jackson’s political system and environment. The city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and Lumumba needed only to force and win a runoff with other Democratic candidates to effectively win the mayoralty.)
Ravi Perry, a professor of political science at Mississippi State University, says that Lumumba had a noticeable effect on the city’s politics. Prior to his time as a council member and mayor, Perry says that the city’s politicians were inclined to a “classic conservative civil rights agenda style” — that is, conservative in approach, if not ideology.
But Perry says Lumumba was more hands-on, more grassroots. He brought some of his activist organizing principles with him to City Hall. “He, for instance, got elected because his people’s forums — which he had every three months as a councilman — were so popular,” the writer and activist dream hampton told NPR’s Michel Martin. “The people of Jackson just didn’t have experience with having the kind of direct communication and then results from that communication, those forums in their city. They didn’t have that kind of experience of open forum and participatory democracy.”
His mayoral platform would come out of those People’s Assemblies.
Perry compared Lumumba to Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor. Like Washington, Perry said, Lumumba didn’t shy away from talking about race, but he managed to win converts and allies to his practical governing approach. “Even though his views were not mainstream, he was able to convince people that he could govern in a mainstream way without selling out to only support middle-class values and without selling out his own values and vision,” Perry told me. “In a city that’s hindered by poverty, in a state that’s last on every list, for him to be able to convince people in that city that there was a new possible vision, that’s a remarkable rhetorical feat.”
But also like Washington, Perry says Lumumba’s death during his first mayoral term might give many folks reason to wonder about the long-term viability of their political approaches and concerns. “Running [and winning] on lower-class interest and running for re-election on lower class interests in a city that isn’t particularly progressive … there’s kind of a question [as to whether that can work].”