At the United Auto Workers office near Canton, Miss., the tragic news began to trickle in late Tuesday afternoon. First only a rumor, the story was soon confirmed by live TV reports from City Hall: Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who had taken office last July, had died at age 66.
Official confirmation of Lumumba’s death provoked deep shock and sadness among the workers and staff at the spartan UAW premises, which are decorated with banners proclaiming international support for workers trying to unionize at the decade-old Nissan auto production complex about 10 miles outside of Jackson.
The small group gathered in the union office felt pain not only for the loss of a mayor, lauded in life — and death — as a visionary even by his opponents. With Lumumba’s passing, the UAW was also mourning the loss of an ally, an outspoken advocate for unions and workers.
The highest-profile champion of worker rights in the fiercely right-wing state, Lumumba would undoubtedly have been a crucial public ally of Nissan workers in the struggles that lie ahead.
Lumumba grew up in Detroit, Mich., where he eventually earned a law degree and became active in the Republic of New Afrika movement, a group demanding reparations for slavery and the establishment of a largely African-American country in five southern states, including Mississippi.
As a lawyer, Lumumba defended black nationalists and radicals, prisoners and other individuals who contended the government was violating their human and civil rights. While his work won him admirers on the Left, Lumumba’s political and legal work made him a “monster” to some voters in the mayoral election, according to local reports.
In Nissan’s burgeoning union movements, Lumumba’s history as a radical would have made him an ideal counterweight to the political reality for workers in Mississippi.
Conservative politicians in Mississippi are all but explicit in their intention to employ extreme action to block unions — perhaps even more extreme than the scare tactics used by Tennessee Republicans like Sen. Bob Corker in their anti-union battle at Volkswagen in Chattanooga.
The Mississippi Senate, for example, passed a package of bills earlier this month clearly targeted at weakening unions, especially the UAW at Canton. The potential legislation would prohibit any “coercion” of businesses to be neutral in union representation votes, prohibit outright any neutrality agreements, prohibit mass picketing and prohibit any limitations on employer background checks of potential employees.
At its factory in Smyrna, Tenn., Nissan has twice blocked UAW organizing, and unlike Volkswagen, the union will have to pressure Nissan to accept some sort of fair rules or neutrality. The union hopes to bring that pressure with the support of auto unions, national advocacy organizations and the local community — an effort where Lumumba, with decades of experience as an activist under his belt, would have played a valuable role, especially because he hadn’t abandoned his radical ideals after assuming office.
In Jackson, a city rapidly losing both population and capital, Lumumba campaigned on promises of participatory democracy in both the economic and political realms. He intended to establish neighborhood people’s assemblies as a means of developing legislation and spurring political mobilization. Lumumba also proposed developing urban agriculture and worker cooperatives as part of democratic economic development.
But Mayor Lumumba’s main post-election political achievements were his articulation of a hopeful vision of revival for Jackson and his outreach to all sectors of the city to work together, as in his campaign slogan: “One city, one aim, one destiny.”
Lumumba’s main economic achievement was winning 90 percent approval in a referendum on a higher sales tax to be used for water, sewer and road repair and upgrades. (After originally opposing the measure that would have put control of the funds largely outside of City Hall’s control, Lumumba negotiated a deal that will allow the Jackson mayor to play a major role in the allocation of revenues.)
Unions aren’t the only ones lamenting the loss of Lumumba. After the mayor’s death, even those who had been loudest in their critiques of Lumumba sang his praises. The conservative Clarion-Ledger newspaper editorialized: “Lumumba’s legacy should be [the] city’s guide.”
Meanwhile, Lumumba’s allies have been memorializing the late mayor in their own way. The day after his death, leaders in the progressive Working Together Jackson coalition met at the city’s Stewpot Community Services center for a regular gathering that turned into a prayer meeting, led by ministers who preached on the transience of life and joys of the hereafter.
But Rev. James Sims reminded the crowd that Lumumba was a “comrade in the struggle” for a union at Nissan, an ally of blue-collar folks. “He thought everyone needs a voice,” especially in big factories, “and for everyone to have an opportunity to make decisions,” without interference by the employer.
Lumumba’s pro-union, pro-worker ideals are a critical component of his legacy, one that Clarion-Ledger and once hostile local leaders who now praise the late mayor might keep in mind in the coming years.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.