Chokwe Lumumba’s dilemma was simple: how to be a revolutionary in decidedly nonrevolutionary Mississippi. It was a mission that seemed bound to alienate and polarize, even long before he became mayor of Jackson, home to a city hall built by slave labor.
But when I went to Jackson last year to profile the newly elected Lumumba—who died of heart failure on February 25, at age 66—and in my conversations with Mississippians this year, I was shocked at how hard it was to find someone who didn’t like him. Mainstream liberals like Rickey Cole, chair of the state Democratic Party, and his staff were keen to show solidarity with Lumumba’s administration. They talked about his honor and integrity, despite political differences. After his death, Cole called the mayor “a man by the people, of the people and for the people.”
Even business leaders like Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, expressed surprise about how clear, open and efficient Lumumba’s first months in office had been. Hampered by a lack of city revenue, Lumumba passed a one-cent local sales tax to fund infrastructure repair in Jackson, where the tap water ran brown and many roads were in disrepair. There was nothing especially radical about the tax, except for the fact that Lumumba took his case to the people, winning consent for the measure in a referendum.
It gave 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 counterrevolution 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 teenage corpse, street battles and sit-ins and, most formative, 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 the slain Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, Chokwe joined the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) movement, which had roots in Detroit but relocated to Jackson to build a new nation in the African-American-majority counties of the Southeast.
Lumumba eventually got a law degree, but his was not a tale of a radical coming to terms with society as it exists, like so many from the New Left. His legal career was radical and often controversial. He took on a host of high-profile cases, including that of Fulani Sunni Ali, rapper Tupac Shakur, and former Black Panther Party members Geronimo Pratt and Assata Shakur. He never renounced the goal of black self-determination or apologized for his RNA activism.