Chokwe Lumumba’s dilemma was simple: how to be a revolutionary in a decidedly non-revolutionary Mississippi.
It was a mission that seemed bound to alienate and polarize, even long before he became mayor of Jackson, home to a state capitol building flying a defiant Confederate battle flag and a city hall built by slave labor.
But when I went to Jackson to profile the newly elected Lumumba last year and in my conversations with Mississippians throughout this year, I was shocked at how hard it was to find someone who didn’t like him. Economic populists like Rickey Cole, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and his staff were keen to show solidarity with Jackson’s new administration. They talked about Lumumba’s honor and integrity, whatever their political differences. After his death, Cole called the mayor “a man by the people, of the people, and for the people.”
Even business leaders in the city like Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, expressed surprise during Lumumba’s administration about how clear, open and efficient his first few months in office had been. Hampered by a lack of city revenue and hostility at the state-level, Lumumba had just passed a one-cent local sales tax to fund Jackson’s infrastructure. The taps ran brown and many roads were in disrepair when I visited the city, and the Environmental Protection Agency had threatened action if waste systems weren’t upgraded. There was nothing especially radical about the tax, except for the fact that Lumumba took his case to the people, explaining the situation and winning consent for the measure in a referendum.
It gave a new resonance to the “sewer socialist” tradition that administered public office for generations in Milwaukee and elsewhere in the last century. But there were signs that if the mayor and his Malcolm X Grassroots Movement stayed in power, the deepening of their revolution would attract something of a counter-revolution in response.
Lumumba was born in Detroit as Edwin Finley Taliaferro. He saw racism growing up—from all-white restaurants in Dearborn that wouldn’t serve his family to housing and job discrimination in the inner city. It was enough to instill a level of social consciousness in the young man, consciousness that would only grow as he absorbed the era’s images: Emmett Till’s battered teenaged corpse, street battles and sit-ins and, most formatively, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Like so many other black youth, he was radicalized. Adopting his “free name” after a Central African ethnic group and slain Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, Chokwe put ambitions of becoming a lawyer on hold to join the fight. He was attracted to the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) movement, which had roots in Detroit but relocated to Jackson. They wanted a new nation in the African-American majority counties of the southeast.
In 1971, Lumumba joined them in Jackson—where, like other cities in Mississippi, blacks had little political representation and nostalgia for Jim Crow was still strong. That same year, in August, local police and FBI agents raided the RNA compound. In the ensuing gun battle, during which Lumumba was not present, a police officer was killed and another, along with a federal agent, was wounded. Eleven New Afrika members were arrested. In the aftermath, Lumumba moved back to Detroit, finishing law school at Wayne State University in 1975 before finding his way back to Jackson later that decade.