A Rare Breeze Blows in Mississippi

Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – Camelot is a mythical place but to hear Chokwe Antar Lumumba talk about Jackson, Mississippi, you might start believing it is real. Lumumba is not MLK, either, but he sure talks like him. 

“We no longer need to accept someone else’s vision of our destiny. We need to create our own destiny and draft the leadership which represents our vision,” Lumumba told the Tribune. 

Lumumba spoke to labor activists last week at Vanderbilt University. They were an engaged and well-informed audience who peppered him with questions after a 30-minute speech. 

“It’s an honor to be amongst so many organizers who struggle and fight on behalf of oppressed people. This is good company,” Lumumba told them. 

“I bring you greetings from Jackson, Mississippi where our mission is to be the most radical city on the planet,” he said.

That idea resonated with voters who elected Lumumba mayor last June. He got 93 percent of the vote. Jackson has a population of 174,000 and 80 percent of its residents are African American.

Lumumba is married with two kids. He comes from a family of activists. 

His father, Chokwe Lumumba, was also Jackson’s mayor but he died in office in 2014.

“Our parents felt that giving us a sense of community and an understanding of the movement was as important a part of nurturing us as giving us food, water, and shelter,” Lumumba said.

Local politics with national implications

Progressives are challenging conventional Democrats in primaries all over the country, even in red states like Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona. They are running in battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. They are challenging traditional Democrats in blue states like Maryland, New York, Hawaii, and Rhode Island.

If enough of them win in 2018 they will take over the Democratic Party like the Freedom Caucus has taken over the Republican Party. With more progressives in Congress and in state legislatures, Bernie Sanders, if he runs again, will actually get the nomination this time.  

What does all that have to do with a small town mayor in Mississippi who is black, where the average income is $16,000 a year, and who inherited a city in chaos and almost bankrupt? Lumumba, 35, is a fresh young face and people like him. He is a breath of fresh air from the Cotton Belt.  

Lumumba won the primary without a runoff in a field of nine candidates including a longtime state senator, the incumbent mayor, a county supervisor, and a prominent businessman. Lumumba crushed the establishment candidates who said he was just too radical. 

“We ran a grassroots campaign that spoke to peoples’ issues, really engaging people to know what their platform needed to be and not giving them what the goals and mission were. I believe that’s how we have to revolutionize electoral politics,” he said.

Jackson is the state capital and Mississippi’s largest urban area. It has broken water pipes, lots of potholes, terrible schools, and a high crime rate. 

When Lumumba got elected city employees were on furlough and some had not gotten a raise in more than decade. The first thing he did was put people back to work. 

“We’re doing our wage study right now so we can make sure we can give everybody a living wage in the city and that is our commitment,” he said. 

There are lots of places with problems like Jackson and they are not all in the South. Lumumba is a rare bird whose bottom-up politics is grounded in realpolitik. He talks with people who don’t agree with him. He finds common ground and gets their support, and then gets things done. He calls solving problems this way “operational unity”. 

Lumumba says you can use this method to negotiate conflicts without giving up your principles. 

“We come into a room and identify where we are unified. We debate where we may have differences with the objective of reaching more unity at the end of the day than we arrived with,” he said.

Solving Problems 

That strategy worked with Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant who was about to take over the Jackson schools system just one week after Lumumba took office. 

“I think there is an issue with the school district and I’m concerned about that,” Bryant told Lumumba. Lumumba believes in self-determination and local control. He was ready to argue against the state takeover even though several experts told Lumumba he couldn’t stop it.

“Well, Governor, state takeovers have never succeeded in this state or any other state. It’s just a punitive measure,” Lumumba told Bryant.  

 “I wish I had a third option, “ Bryant said.

’”So what did we do? We went and created a third option. We now call it a ‘Better Together Commission’,” Lumumba said. 

Jackson still has its school board and the district still operates city schools. The commission is a partnership between the school district, the governor’s office, and the Kellogg Foundation. Each has five members on the 15-member commission.

“We now have partners that can help fund the gap between where we are and where we want to be,” says Lumumba. 

Just exactly where that is, has been the subject of several citizens’ assemblies at community centers. Thousands of residents have attended them and Lumumba said 60,000 doors have been knocked on to find out what people want from their school district. 

Sitting down and working out a solution together can’t solve some problems. When Lumumba discovered the deadbeats running Jackson’s airport had long overstayed their tenure, he got rid of them.

The airport sits on 300 acres the city owns and it owns another 2700 adjacent acres. Lumumba plans to develop it and collect taxes from the parcels that fall within Jackson city limits. The old commissioners had been operating the airport in the red for years. 

“When we changed that and put in a commission with a focus that Jackson is first—all of a sudden we’re in the black.”  Airport contracts now go to businesses that are in Jackson. 

Lumumba is both a public figure and a change agent. That’s a rare combination. Jackie Robinson stole home in the first game of the 1955 World Series by slipping under the tag of the Yankees’ great catcher, Yogi Berra. The Yankees won that game but the Brooklyn Dodgers went on to win the World Series in seven games that year. 

Lumumba wasn’t born until 1983 but, like Robinson, he is talented, and daring, and devoted to the game he plays so well. Only time will tell if he can change American politics the way Jackie Robinson changed baseball.

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