Is This the Most Radical Mayor in America?

Is This the Most Radical Mayor in America?

Is This the Most Radical Mayor in America?

Chokwe Antar Lumumba has an audacious plan to make Jackson, Mississippi, the “most radical city on the planet.”


Jackson, MississippiThe first thing I see when I walk into the mayor’s office here is an easel with an artist’s rendering of a movie theater. At one time, this city had nearly a dozen, including the Alamo, a Streamline gem on Farish Street, the center of segregated Jackson’s black business district, where a diet of westerns and second-run features shared the stage with B.B. King, Louis Jordan, and Nat King Cole. But Farish Street today is deserted, and Jackson—the capital of Mississippi, with a population roughly the size of Fort Lauderdale or Providence, Rhode Island—has not a single cinema inside the city limits.

“Most people don’t see the value in what you’re trying to build until you build it,” says Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Jackson’s mayor. “Once you build it, then people see the value in it.” Tall and slender, with a neatly trimmed beard, Lumumba explains that while previous administrations have tried—and failed—to entice national cinema chains back to downtown, he plans to tackle the problem from a different angle.

“My vision is that the city use its bully pulpit to encourage the development of cooperative businesses,” he continues. “So it would be more than just a movie theater. The city wouldn’t own it—it wouldn’t be socialism in that sense. But we can write a check that will go into a nonprofit organization…”

Elected in June with 93 percent of the vote, Lumumba lit up the left press with his promise—delivered later that month in a speech at the People’s Summit in Chicago—to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.”

When I tease the mayor about trying to build socialism in one city, Lumumba laughs, then comes back with: “I recently had the opportunity to go to Barcelona and talk with the mayor there about the cooperative businesses that they’ve developed over time.” FC Barcelona, as every soccer fan knows, is owned and operated by its supporters. It also happens to be one of the most successful sports franchises in the world.

Lumumba tells me he’s more of an American-football fan. His political inspiration, too, lies a lot closer to home. “Cooperatives are not a new idea. Fannie Lou Hamer used to talk about cooperative businesses, cooperative farms, as one of the ways poor people could pool their resources to further their goals. And when you look at the United States, Ace Hardware is a cooperative. Land O’Lakes Butter is a cooperative. And what’s the greatest community-owned cooperative business? The Green Bay Packers!”

Green Bay, Wisconsin, Lumumba points out, is only two-thirds the size of Jackson. “So my view is that if the city of Green Bay can figure out how to own their own professional football team, we can figure out how to own a movie theater!”

Assuming that he gets his theater, what would “the most radical city on the planet” look like in 10 years? “In 10 years,” he replies, “what we should see is a city that was not only able to correct its ills, but one that could serve as a model for other cities—by abandoning the traditional model of how you develop a city.”

Jackson has many of the same resources that allowed northern cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland to reinvent themselves. The state of Mississippi itself is the city’s largest employer, but Jackson is also home to several major hospitals and a half-dozen colleges, including Jackson State and Tougaloo. Of course, the “eds and meds” magic might not work when the colleges are historically black. Even where it has worked, the price has been displacement—already an issue in Jackson along the “medical corridor” that connects the hospitals to the downtown area.

Nsombi Lambright, a Jackson native who used to be executive director of the Mississippi ACLU, and who currently runs One Voice, a public-policy shop focused on economic and community development, points to Atlanta as another city where “you have a lot of development—and a lot of displacement.”

“Traditional models speak to creating great edifices and nice new housing and pricing people out,” Lumumba says. “Moving people from one state of misery to the next. Instead of moving people away, we’re going to lift them up. As we look at initiatives, we’re asking: How are we going to create jobs in this process? How are we going to match an underskilled workforce with the work that we need to do? How do we turn our crumbling infrastructure into an economic frontier? How do we create incubator funds to support small, homegrown businesses?”

Cooperation Jackson has spent the past four years trying to answer exactly those questions. Kali Akuno, the group’s co-founder, told me that his members have been slowly taking over abandoned buildings and lots, planting crops, and creating a community land trust.

“Black politicians in major cities had to go with the neoliberal program to get resources—which left a lot of folks disillusioned,” Akuno says. He, too, thinks Jackson can become a showcase for a whole new economy, a Mondragon in Mississippi leading the way out of capitalism and exploitation.

Alongside economic self-sufficiency, the other theme that the mayor keeps coming back to is co-governance. Rukia Lumumba, who co-chaired her brother’s election campaign and now heads the “democratic visioning” committee of his transition team, explains: “The idea is that the people retain power, which the government responds to. So that the residents control the city—not my brother sitting on the hill.”

According to both Rukia and her brother, the main vehicle for achieving this is the People’s Assembly. Held every quarter, these assemblies are meant to be an opportunity for the community to critique and inform their elected officials. “Three minutes on a microphone does not make community participation,” the mayor acknowledges. “Instead it should be an information exchange, where we go to the community and say, ‘This is what’s going on. This is what’s going to impact your community.’ And the community can say, ‘This is what is happening on the street. This is what you need to be concerned about.’ It’s literally the process of connecting pothole to pothole to pothole—and community to community.”

“Antar has very radical ambitions,” says Lambright, who like all the mayor’s friends and colleagues refers to him by his middle name. “But he’s not going to get there without the support of the community.”

Chokwe Antar Lumumba inherited his name, and a lot of his political support, from his father, Chokwe Lumumba, who changed his name from Edwin Taliaferro when he became an activist with the Republic of New Afrika. In 1971, Lumumba senior led a caravan from Michigan to Bolton, Mississippi, a small town about 20 miles west of Jackson where the RNA planned to establish a base from which to spread its message: that African Americans should resettle in the five Black Belt states of the Deep South—Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina—demand reparations for slavery, and eventually seek recognition as an independent nation.

A police raid on the group’s Jackson office later that summer left one officer dead, two wounded—and much of the RNA leadership in prison. Chokwe Lumumba, who was away that day, returned to law school in Detroit, where he worked in the public defender’s office and eventually set up his own practice. His clients were a who’s who of black nationalism: Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther who spent 27 years in prison before receiving a $4.5 million settlement for wrongful imprisonment, as well as Assata Shakur and Tupac Shakur.

The Lumumba children were born in Detroit. Their mother, Nubia, was a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines. “My mother wore high heels every day. She was very stylish,” says Rukia, adding that “Antar inherited our mother’s fashion sense.” Which she regards as fortunate, since “my father was still wearing an Afro in the 1980s.”

“When I was around 2 years old,” the mayor recalls, “my father moved us to Brooklyn. He represented Mutulu Shakur, Tupac Shakur’s stepfather, in the Brink’s truck robbery.” The family lived on DeKalb Avenue, in an apartment so small that Rukia, five years older than her brother, told me “our dresser had to be in the living room.” After the Brink’s trial ended, the mayor continues, “my father said, ‘We have unfinished business in Mississippi,’ and the family moved to Jackson.” For 10-year-old Rukia, the culture shock was intense. “Jackson then was very segregated. There was an underlying fear that I recognized early on. You couldn’t talk about race, because it was offensive.”

This is where Medgar fell,” said Frank Figgers as we pulled up in front of the tan-and-green bungalow where, on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary of the NAACP, was shot in the back by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council.

I met Figgers in the NAACP office. A fourth-generation Jacksonite who had long been active in the movement, he’d kindly offered to give me a sense of the city’s racial geography. “See the way the houses here don’t have sidewalks? That’s how you know this was a black area,” he said. A block away, the lawns were all bounded by a neat ribbon of concrete. “This is where the shooter was. In 1963, white folks lived in all these houses.”

The white folks have mostly left. In May 1961, when the first Freedom Riders arrived, Jackson was 65 percent white. In 1970, when police fired on students protesting the Vietnam War at Jackson State, killing two of them, whites still made up 60 percent of the city. But since then, whites have fled in droves. In the 1990s, Jackson lost 35,000 whites—mostly to the suburbs of nearby Rankin and Madison counties. Middle-class and wealthy blacks were leaving, too. By 1997, when the city elected its first black mayor, Jackson was over two-thirds black. Today, that figure is closer to 80 percent.

Mississippi’s white power structure reacted to the change with malign neglect—perhaps best symbolized by the perilous condition of the city’s roads. Driving along Mill Street back to my hotel a few blocks from the Governor’s Mansion, I counted a dozen potholes, some deep enough to swallow an entire wheel—or a small car. In Belhaven, the leafy, historically white neighborhood that served as a location for the film The Help, the potholes even have their own Facebook page.

The same Yazoo clay that undermines Jackson’s streets also wreaks havoc on the city’s aging water pipes and culverts. Throughout the fall, residents regularly received “boil notices” from the State Department of Health warning them not to drink the tap water. Back in 2012, Jackson entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency that required $400 million in repairs to bring the city’s water and sewer systems into compliance with federal standards. According to the EPA, during the previous five years Jackson’s sewers overflowed more than 2,300 times, sending untreated waste into the Pearl River.

Five years—and a 100 percent rise in sewer rates—later, the city is desperately trying to renegotiate both the time allowed for the work to be completed and the method used to pay for it. At the same time, Rankin County—which has been paying Jackson upwards of $4 million a year for access to the city’s water and sewers—recently won permission from the state to build its own treatment plant on the Pearl River. Governor Phil Bryant, a Tea Party Republican, used to represent Rankin County in the Legislature.

Despite Jackson’s status as the state capital, it has been left to the city’s shrinking tax base to remedy decades of neglect and disinvestment. And the state has made things more difficult—for example, by expanding the number of exemptions to the 1 percent sales tax that Jackson voters approved in 2014 to fund infrastructure repairs, cutting the city’s expected proceeds in half. Of the 10 members on the commission overseeing how the sales-tax proceeds are spent, the city gets just three nominees, while the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the State House of Representatives—all white Republicans—are given one each. The remaining four places are filled by the Jackson Chamber of Commerce.

The state also recently voted to seize control of the Jackson–Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, which contributed $3.7 million to the city’s bottom line in 2015. The bill—signed by Bryant in 2016 but now the subject of federal litigation—would give the governor, rather than the city, control over the airport board, while also reserving seats for appointees from Rankin and Madison counties.

The most bitter and most blatant instance of the way that Mississippi’s long history of racial oppression continues to shape events is the battle over Jackson’s public schools. Before Brown v. Board of Education, Mississippi maintained two separate and decidedly unequal school systems. Not only were black students shunted into ramshackle facilities with inadequate equipment, but the school calendar was built around the cotton season, with black schools only in session five months of the year.

Brown was handed down on May 17, 1954. The following December, the Mississippi Legislature voted to close the state’s public schools. That year also saw the founding of the White Citizens’ Council. In addition to pursuing “the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary Club,” as the historian Charles Payne put it, the group opened Council McCluer High in Jackson, whose graduates include Governor Bryant.

Though such schools were privately run, the state provided tuition grants for white students. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act made it clear that de jure segregation was a hopeless cause, Mississippi adopted “freedom of choice,” giving all students the right to choose which school to attend. Black parents who tried to send their children to all-white schools were no longer arrested. They merely faced the loss of their jobs, evictions or mortgage cancellations, cross burnings, and other “unofficial” violence, often at the hands of police.

After the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that the South had to desegregate its public schools without further delay, whites in Mississippi simply abandoned them. In 1963, there were only 17 private schools in the state; by 1970, there were 263. Whites also did everything they could to avoid paying for public education. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which mandates an “adequate education” for every child in the state, has been fully funded just twice in the past 20 years. In 2015, Proposition 42, a citizen ballot initiative that would have given courts the right to enforce full funding, was defeated—thanks in part to the group Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers, which donated $239,000 to the campaign against it. While wealthy areas can make up their funding shortfalls out of property taxes, pupils in Jackson schools must continue to do without.

That hasn’t stopped the state from declaring Jackson, Mississippi’s second-largest school system, a failing district. Nor did the fact that a previously agreed Corrective Action Plan still had months to run prevent the state from threatening to take over Jackson’s schools.

To Nsombi Lambright, the whole process is a sinister farce: “For years, the state has been taking over majority-black districts, which have been given failing ratings while, at the same time, those districts have never received full funding. What they want is something like the Recovery School District in Louisiana,” which turned public schools in New Orleans into charter schools. In Mississippi, Lambright says, talk of charters, vouchers, and “school choice” all adds up to “the same thing”—a covert campaign to rig the system “so white families won’t have to pay private-school fees anymore.”

A lot of people have gotten frustrated,”Hollis Watkins tells me. In 1959, Watkins was recruited by Medgar Evers to join the NAACP Youth Chapter. Two years later, at 19, he met Robert Parris Moses and became one of the first Mississippians to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His memoir, Brother Hollis, is a bracing corrective to anyone who believes that persuading white college students to come south for a “Freedom Summer” was the pinnacle of SNCC’s success. Watkins also refutes the caricature of the Black Power movement as a historical curiosity, a blind alley off the road to the cooperative commonwealth. “The term ‘black power’ was as much a question as a declaration,” he writes. “Most people don’t realize that…’black power’ was aimed as much at the old guard Negro leadership as it was aimed at white America.”

When the Lumumba family moved to Jackson, they joined a community of activists who had been working for decades. “My parents didn’t force anything on us,” says Rukia Lumumba. “You could go to the meeting—or not.”

Her brother tells it a bit differently, remembering Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) coming to their home. “When I was in junior high, we had Rosa Parks eat dinner at the house. I used to talk to Tupac about Sega Genesis. Did I make a conscious decision that I’m going to be an activist? I don’t think that I ever felt I had a choice.

“The goal wasn’t: ‘One day, we’re going to run for political office.’ In fact, you could say that we were kind of antagonistic to the electoral piece.” It was the government’s treatment of Hurricane Katrina evacuees that prompted Jackson’s activists to reassess that stance, leading Chokwe senior to run for the City Council. In 2013, he was elected mayor. Nine months later, he was dead.

In the special election to complete his term, Lumumba’s son, barely five years out of law school, ran and lost. After three years of an administration dogged by allegations of corruption, Antar ran again, endorsed by the Working Families Party and Our Revolution. This time, he won. And while his agenda may be similar to his father’s, now the stakes are even higher. “People want to know he’s really gonna fix those potholes,” says Safiya Omari, the mayor’s chief of staff, who served in the same role for his father. “We want to make Jackson an example of what government for the people can be.”

Kali Akuno served as director of special projects for Chokwe senior. He worries that with so many fights on the horizon—schools, infrastructure, the airport—the son’s administration will be too pinned down to ever begin anything radical. Or, worse, that it might fall into “the Syriza trap, which is having a left-wing government come in to administer the worst forms of austerity.”

Yet the longer I spent in Jackson, the more I found myself succumbing to moments of hope. Partly because Lumumba clearly recognizes the scale of the challenge: “When people ask me, ‘How do you feel about Donald Trump being president?,’ I tell them, ‘On the Wednesday after the election, I woke up in Mississippi.’ No matter whether Donald Trump is the president or Barack Obama was the president, we’ve always been at the bottom.”

But mainly it was because I kept meeting people who made me ashamed of my own pessimism. Like Michelle Colon, a clinic escort at Jackson Women’s Health, the last abortion provider left in the state, who told me: “We fight like hell in Mississippi. We don’t have the luxury of some other states.” She, too, felt a flickering of possibility from the new administration: “Everyone thinks of Mississippi as being so backwards. It would be great if Jackson could be a model.” Or Rukia Lumumba, eager to “transform the way we deal with justice.” Or Frank Figgers, who took me on a tour of abandoned factories to demonstrate the industrial base the city once had—and could have again.

A few days after I left, a small miracle occurred: The mayor and the governor announced an agreement—brokered by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—that lets Jackson maintain control of its schools.

“It’s a war on many fronts,” says Hollis Watkins, who after a half-century of beatings, arrests, death threats, and bitter disappointments is still in the fight. “But it’s not a war that can’t be won.” In the company of so many people who had already accomplished the impossible once, it seemed unforgivably rude to insist that it couldn’t happen again.

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