JACKSON, MISS. — “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’.”
The words from the Curtis Mayfield song rang out at Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s victory party on Tuesday night. By 8:30, it was clear Lumumba would win over 50 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff to win the Democratic primary for mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. With only a perfunctory general election in his way (to take place in June), Lumumba will almost certainly be the city’s next mayor.
The election places Jackson — population 170,000, 80 percent black — in the vanguard of progressive politics, offering clear lessons for progressive forces across the country: First, that seizing political power at the municipal level is a critical step toward any change on a national level. And second, that there’s no time to spare — organizing to win local power can start now.
In Jackson itself, the election heralds a new era. Like the country as a whole, Jackson is beset by numerous crises: economic inequality, poverty, budget cuts, crumbling road and water infrastructure, predatory contractors and financiers.
Perhaps no mayor nationwide has gone so far as Lumumba in suggesting that the solutions for these crises lie not in the ministrations of technocratic policy advisers, but in the people themselves—in working class and Black people, in people actively marginalized by the political status quo.
To paraphrase Fannie Lou Hamer, Jackson was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Ebony Lumumba, the candidate’s wife, quoted Matthew 20:16 “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” “Mississippi has been last for too long. Jackson has been last for too long.”
Lumumba and his allies in Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Cooperation Jackson, smarting from the close 2014 loss to corporate-backed neoliberal Tony Yarber, had spent years honing deep organizing in the city, contacting as many people as possible with the Lumumba agenda for “an economics by the people and for the people [rather than] an economics that benefits the few.”
That, combined with a diverse array of local and national support — including dozens of volunteers from the city workers union, represented by the Communications Workers of America, the only union to back Lumumba; the Working Families Party; Democracy for America; Green Party vice presidential nominee Ajamu Baraka; and Black and working-class organizing projects working to transform the South — helped ensure his win.
Toward the top of Lumumba’s agenda is fighting to stop a state takeover of the city’s airport. A pending lawsuit against the takeover will begin court proceedings in the fall. Lumumba will also need to stave off a rumored takeover of the city’s school district by the state, as well as work to end the unpopular furlough of city workers.
There is much standing in Lumumba’s way: Near-total Republican control of state government; the further starvation of urban areas by the Trump budget; ratings agencies such as Moody’s that punish Jackson by further cutting its already-low credit rating; the contractors that have been living high on the hog from the city without giving back.
But on Tuesday night, a glimpse of the new New South — a South based on human and worker’s rights, rather than a South controlled by a tiny elite — was at hand. Forces of reaction have held Mississippi back since the end of Reconstruction. This election, then, begins the process of liberating territory.