Chokwe Lumumba’s dilemma was simple: how to be a revolutionary in a decidedly non-revolutionary Mississippi.
It was a mission that seemed bound to alienate and polarize, even long before he became mayor of Jackson, home to a state capitol building flying a defiant Confederate battle flag and a city hall built by slave labor.
But when I went to Jackson to profile the newly elected Lumumba last year and in my conversations with Mississippians throughout this year, I was shocked at how hard it was to find someone who didn’t like him. Economic populists like Rickey Cole, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and his staff were keen to show solidarity with Jackson’s new administration. They talked about Lumumba’s honor and integrity, whatever their political differences. After his death, Cole called the mayor, “A man by the people, of the people, and for the people.”
Even business leaders in the city like Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, expressed surprise during Lumumba’s administration about how clear, open and efficient his first few months in office had been. Hampered by a lack of city revenue and hostility at the state-level, Lumumba had just passed a one-cent local sales tax to fund Jackson’s infrastructure. The taps ran brown and many roads were in disrepair when I visited the city, and the Environmental Protection Agency had threatened action if waste systems weren’t upgraded. There was nothing especially radical about the tax, except for the fact that Lumumba took his case to the people, explaining the situation and winning consent for the measure in a referendum.
It gave a new resonance to the “sewer socialist” tradition that administered public office for generations in Milwaukee and elsewhere in the last century. But there were signs that if the mayor and his Malcolm X Grassroots Movement stayed in power, the deepening of their revolution would attract something of a counter-revolution in response.