Chokwe Lumumba maintained a civil rights commitment that was rooted in the moment when his mother showed her 8-year-old son the Jet magazine photograph of a beaten Emmett Till in his open casket. The commitment was nurtured on the streets of Detroit, where Lumumba and his mother collected money to support the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s.
Half a century later, he would be the transformational mayor of a major Southern city, Jackson, Mississippi. But just as his tenure was taking shape, Lumumba died unexpectedly Tuesday at age 66.
The mayor’s death ended an epic journey that challenged conventions, upset the status quo and proved the potential of electoral politics to initiate radical change—even in a conservative Southern state.
As a young man, inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle to address “infectious discrimination, racism and apartheid,” and shocked into a deeper activism by King’s assassination, Lumumba changed his name from Edwin Taliaferro—taking his new first name from an African tribe that had resisted slavery and his new last name from the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba.
Chokwe Lumumba became a human rights lawyer “defending political prisoners.” His clients would eventually include former Black Panthers and rapper Tupac Shakur. His remarkable list of legal accomplishments included his key role in the 2010 decision of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to suspend the sentences of Jamie and Gladys Scott, Mississippi sisters who were released after serving sixteen years of consecutive life sentences for an $11 robbery—a punishment that came to be understood as a glaring example of the extreme over-sentencing of African-Americans.
When he was not in court, Lumumba was agitating, as a civil rights and anti-apartheid activist, as a leading figure in the Republic of New Afrika, and as a co-founder of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
That’s not the usual résumé for the mayor of a major Southern city.
But Chokwe Lumumba had no intention of becoming a usual mayor when he launched his bid last year for Jackson’s top job. After a campaign in which the city councilman was outspent 4-1 and attacked as a militant, Lumumba defeated an incumbent mayor and a business-backed contender in the Democratic primary and then won more than 85 percent of the vote in the June 2013 general election.