Editor’s note: Chokwe Lumumba died suddenly of heart failure last week at the age of 66. The black nationalist, who at one time advocated for a separate nation for blacks inside the U.S., was elected mayor of Jackson, Miss., last year. His funeral will be held this Saturday.
Three years ago, Amiri Baraka delivered the keynote address at our annual student conference on the campus of Jackson State University. When he got here, he asked if we might be able to find an opportunity to visit with an old friend of his: Chokwe Lumumba. Just before a poetry reading that evening, I had the special opportunity to sit and listen as these two remarkable activists and scholars shared intimate stories and memories in the back room of the Afrika Book Café, a small independent bookstore owned and operated by a colleague of mine at JSU. It was one of those rare experiences in life when you recognize at that exact time that you are witnessing a moment of historical significance. Now that we have lost both of those great men in the span of the past two months, I have become that much more aware of how lucky I was to spend even a few minutes in their presence.
At the time, Lumumba was a city councilman in Jackson and had gotten elected on his reputation as an advocate for his constituents. He believed in the people and in the power of the people, and that belief resulted in his overwhelming popularity with the people and in his significant and growing political cachet, which he was determined to turn into social and economic change.
When Lumumba decided to run for mayor, most of the pundits dismissed him as a political afterthought. Few believed that a black man who had spent his life and career standing against the racist white American power structure could spin his way into the seat of the chief executive officer of the largest city in Mississippi. After all, Mississippi was known as the most bigoted state in America, the final resting place for the victims of its unparalleled racial hatred: Emmett Till, George Lee, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Medgar Evers and so many others, known and unknown. During the modern civil rights movement, when Lumumba’s consciousness caught fire after the assassination of Dr. King, Mississippi was known, as the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins asserted, “as our worst state … It is not representative of America.”
How could a man, born in Detroit, who changed his name from Edwin Taliafero to Chokwe Lumumba, think he could win election to run a city that had been led by the likes of Allen Thompson, a man who bought a tank for his police force because he saw a similar one put, in his mind, to such good use by Bull Connor against the children who marched for their freedom in Birmingham, Ala.?
Not only that, after the name change, which was an explicit rejection of racist American socialization and a nod to the beauty and strength of his African heritage, Lumumba joined the Republic of New Africa. The RNA believed in the fundamental dignity of all people but was depicted as a separatist and radically militant organization because of its call for land reform on behalf of African Americans in the South. And in Jackson, although Lumumba was not there, plenty of people remembered the 1971 shootout between the police and RNA members.
This was the man running for mayor of Mississippi’s capital city. But Chokwe Lumumba did not want to lead the Jackson of the past. He wanted to lead the people of Jackson, both black and white, to a prosperous and united future.
Still, throughout the campaign, he was never a part of the discussion as a legitimate contender. The incumbent and a young businessman, new on the political scene, dominated the talk. When the Democratic primary came, the overlooked Lumumba was not surprised after he ended in the top two and in a runoff. While he raised only a fraction of the money of his opponents, the man of the people proceeded to then win the runoff and run away with the general election.
A palpable hue and cry was raised in the predominantly white suburbs about the supposedly wild-eyed black nationalist who had taken over the city of Jackson. But Chokwe Lumumba was determined to prove even the naysayers wrong. In his words, “We are not only going to move Jackson forward, we’re going to move Mississippi forward. It’s not a question of us fighting with the people in the suburbs, because we are trying to change all of Mississippi, we want a place where we all live together, we all work together and we all make it together. And we create the kind of society that God would have us have in the first place. We’re not fighting to change colors; we’re fighting to change ideas. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
And, most remarkably, Chokwe Lumumba did just that. In less than a year, Lumumba mobilized a rejuvenated belief in the city, not just from the constituents who loved him but from the doubters and the people who had opposed any advancement for Jackson. It was a remarkable sea change in attitudes led by a most remarkable man. That achievement may be his greatest legacy, but for it to be a lasting one, the people of Jackson and the surrounding areas will now have to commit themselves to perpetuating Lumumba’s vision of “One City, One Aim, One Destiny.”