Chokwe Antar Lumumba Mounts a Political Revolution in Jackson, Mississippi

The upcoming mayoral race pits a radical future against the neoliberal status quo.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook

Chokwe Antar Lumumba is running an unabashedly radical mayoral campaign in the heart of the South. (Courtesy of the Lumumba campaign)

No 2017 elec­tion bet­ter exem­pli­fies the cri­sis with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty than the may­oral race in Jack­son, Miss. In the May 2 pri­ma­ry (the only con­test that mat­ters in this deep-blue city), the incum­bent is a busi­ness-backed for­mer pas­tor who’s sold off the city to cor­po­ra­tions while slash­ing pub­lic ser­vices. His lead­ing oppo­nent is a civ­il rights lawyer steeped in a tra­di­tion of Black self-deter­mi­na­tion pio­neered by Fan­nie Lou Hamer and Mal­colm X. 

Black politicians have often won and kept elected office through accommodation rather than demands for systemic change.

What hap­pens in Jack­son will have pro­found impli­ca­tions for Black elec­toral pol­i­tics. As Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Tay­lor and Kevin Alexan­der Gray, two crit­ics of the Black estab­lish­ment, have not­ed, Black politi­cians have often won and kept elect­ed office through accom­mo­da­tion rather than demands for sys­temic change, and gains in Black polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion have failed to pro­duce mate­r­i­al gains for the aver­age Black per­son. This fail­ure is espe­cial­ly acute in the South, where the white planter elite has co-opt­ed Black lead­ers into an already exist­ing polit­i­cal struc­ture, as doc­u­ment­ed by Hasan Kwame Jef­fries in Bloody Lown­des: Civ­il Rights and Black Pow­er in Alabama’s Black Belt.

Jack­son may be an ear­ly indi­ca­tor of a turn­ing point. In 2013, after an unprece­dent­ed pri­ma­ry upset, Detroit-born civ­il rights lawyer and Black nation­al­ist Chok­we Lumum­ba was elect­ed may­or. He cam­paigned on expand­ing com­mu­ni­ty con­trol of city insti­tu­tions and fix­ing crum­bling infra­struc­ture, as well as democ­ra­tiz­ing city con­tracts and elim­i­nat­ing cor­rup­tion. And he was open about his rad­i­cal­ism. He said in 2013, A sys­tem that is built on white suprema­cy, a sys­tem which is based upon cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion, is not a sys­tem which is going to save peo­ple.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, he died just sev­en months later. 

The elite coa­lesced around Tony Yarber, a city coun­cil­man who beat out Lumumba’s son, Chok­we Antar Lumum­ba, for mayor. 

Yarber’s tenure has been a study in neolib­er­al patron­age pol­i­tics that ben­e­fits a tiny few at the expense of the many. From Lumumba’s pre­de­ces­sor, Har­vey John­son Jr., Yarber inher­it­ed a $91 mil­lion con­tract with the multi­na­tion­al con­glom­er­ate Siemens to auto­mate water meters, lead­ing to one prob­lem after anoth­er, includ­ing sky-high bills and bro­ken water lines. Yarber — who received $30,000 in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from a retired Siemens sub­con­trac­tor, Socrates Gar­rett — has insti­tut­ed no over­sight over Siemens, even as res­i­dents clam­or for a law­suit. Mean­while, he pri­va­tized Jackson’s tran­sit agency, JATRAN, lead­ing to com­plaints of a marked dete­ri­o­ra­tion in the qual­i­ty of ser­vice. He also out­sourced $13.8 mil­lion in sludge-haul­ing work that could have eas­i­ly been done by city employees. 

The high bills from Siemens and oth­er con­trac­tors have been used to jus­ti­fy an aus­ter­i­ty pro­gram, with city work­ers laid off and fur­loughed, cuts in bus ser­vices, and defer­rals of basic main­te­nance. The sew­er sys­tem has so dete­ri­o­rat­ed that tens of thou­sands of res­i­dents lost water ser­vice in February. 

Smelling blood, the Tea Par­ty-dom­i­nat­ed coun­ty and state leg­is­la­ture are mov­ing to take con­trol of var­i­ous parts of Jack­son: the school dis­trict, the air­port and the busi­ness dis­trict sur­round­ing the Capitol. 

Enter Chok­we Antar Lumum­ba, who is again run­ning against Yarber. Like his father’s, Lumumba’s cam­paign cen­ters around good gov­er­nance. He pledges to take on Siemens, stop out­sourc­ing city work and end the fur­loughs. Lumum­ba also wants to push the state for more fund­ing, with­out more top-down con­trol. While Mississippi’s leg­is­la­ture is rightwing, it is sus­cep­ti­ble to orga­nized pres­sure, par­tic­u­lar­ly from the cap­i­tal. The elder Lumum­ba and his allies suc­ceed­ed in get­ting the leg­is­la­ture to make des­per­ate­ly need­ed invest­ments in Jackson’s infra­struc­ture. Like his father, the younger Lumum­ba brings the clout of a local move­ment for eco­nom­ic jus­tice and Black self-deter­mi­na­tion, anchored by groups such as the Mal­colm X Grass­roots Move­ment and Coop­er­a­tion Jack­son, which have deep­ened their base over the past few years by devel­op­ing a net­work of coop­er­a­tives and a com­mu­ni­ty center. 

In 2014, Lumum­ba and his team had lit­tle time to orga­nize a cam­paign — while the old guard quick­ly unit­ed around Yarber. This time, Lumum­ba and his allies have spent years build­ing their elec­toral infra­struc­ture. The seeds have been planted.

Matthew Cun­ning­ham-Cook is a labor researcher and writer liv­ing in Prince George’s Coun­ty, Mary­land. You can con­tact him at m.cunninghamcook [at] gmail​.com.
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