With a clenched fist held high and the promise of a “movement of the people,” Chokwe Antar Lumumba asked the voters of Jackson, Mississippi, to elect him as their mayor in a race he pledged would lead to the transformation of a Deep South city in a deep-red state. Victory for his civil-rights-inspired, labor-backed campaign for economic and social justice would “send shock waves around the world,” said the 34-year-old human-rights lawyer as he vowed to make Jackson “the most progressive city in the country.”
Too radical? Too bold? Not at all. Backed by a coalition that included veteran activists who fought segregation, along with newcomers who got their first taste of politics in Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, Lumumba won 55 percent of the vote in a May Democratic primary that saw him oust the centrist incumbent mayor and sweep past several other senior political figures in Mississippi’s largest city. A month later, he secured a stunning 93 percent of the vote in a general election that drew one of the highest turnouts the city has seen in years.
That victory renewed a radical experiment in community-guided governance and cooperative economics that his father, the veteran radical activist Chokwe Lumumba Sr., began during a brief mayoral term that ended with the senior Lumumba’s untimely death just eight months after his own 2013 election as mayor. Governing magazine speculates that the younger Lumumba’s tenure “may offer striking evidence of a nationwide trend: strongly progressive policies being pushed in big cities, even in deep red states.” That’s true. Unfortunately, Lumumba’s June 6 win didn’t get anything close to the media attention accorded a handful of special elections for US House seats in districts that are so solidly Republican that Donald Trump was comfortable plucking congressmen from them to fill out his cabinet.
This is the frustrating part of Lumumba’s “shock waves around the world” calculus: His election should have sent a shock wave. The same holds true for the election of progressives in local races from Cincinnati to St. Louis to South Fulton, Georgia, in a season of resistance that began with the Women’s March on Washington and mass protests against President Trump’s Muslim ban but has quickly moved to polling places across the country.
The list of victories thus far on this year’s long calendar of contests—mayoral, City Council, state legislative, and even statewide—is striking. Many of them are unprecedented, and most are linked by a growing recognition on the part of national progressive groups and local activists that the greatest resistance not just to Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan but to right-wing governors could well come from the cities and states where the day-to-day work of governing is done. Municipal resistance is crucial because these Republican governors often do the bidding of the Koch brothers and the corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council.