Jackson, Mississippi—The 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!”