From ‘Mississippi Goddam’ to ‘Jackson Hell Yes’: Chokwe Lumumba is the New Mayor of Jackson

Chokwe Lumumba–a founder and leader of the Republic of New Afrika, the New Afrikan People’s Organization and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, defense attorney for Tupac Shakur and others, and a first term city councilman–is the new Mayor of Jackson, Miss.

His June 4 victory is a stirring tribute to the courageous Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers who fifty years ago on June 12, 1963 was gunned down at his Jackson home.

In a stunning turn of events Chokwe defeated Jackson’s three-term incumbent and first African American mayor Harvey Johnson, the white Republican-financed young Black businessman Jonathan Lee, and others to win leadership of the city with the second highest percentage of Black people in the United States.

I was privileged to briefly participate in the victory of one of the most radical mayors in U.S. history, right in the heart of Dixie, and to glimpse a new Black-led progressive coalition that intends to fight for the state.

Nina Simone famously cussed Mississippi white supremacy in her 1964 civil rights anthem “Mississippi Goddam.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkcuNX4vrS8) The election of Chokwe Lumumba is now an occasion to say “Jackson Hell Yes!”

‘Impressed with the People’

Jackson has a partisan mayoral electoral system that allows all voters regardless of party affiliation to cast ballots in any party’s primary election. With their deep pockets and high turnout bloc voting, this so-called “crossover primary” often enables Mississippi’s ultra-conservative white voters and businessmen to influence the candidates of both parties.

Not this time. In a reversal the near unanimous financial and political support that whites gave Jonathan Lee backfired.

By depriving incumbent Johnson of their support, whites inadvertently helped Lumumba upset Johnson in the primary. And in the Lee/Lumumba runoff the full throated white backing of Lee helped most Black voters come crystal clear who he really represented in stark contrast to the powerful progressive grassroots candidacy of Chokwe Lumumba.  

Lee flaunted his deep pockets by filling the airwaves with dire warnings of Lumumba’s “militancy,” “divisiveness” and “anti-Christianity,” but a large Black majority went for Lumumba in huge percentages.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#2C2C2C”>Jackson is 80 percent Black, so the Democratic primary is where the main electoral action takes place. However, the wild card is Jackson’s crossover primary system that allows any voter to participate in any party primary or runoff. In fact Mississippi does not require political party registration.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#2C2C2C”>Councilperson Chokwe Lumumba and attorney Regina Quinn were considered long shots.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#2C2C2C”>Lumumba and Johnson each took about 30 percent of the Black vote with Lee and Quinn garnering about 15 percent of African Americans.  

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#2C2C2C”>Upon his election as city councilman four years ago, Lumumba had organized a People’s Assembly in the Second Ward to educate and activate his constituents. Four years later that People’s Assembly urged Lumumba to run for Mayor and helped draft his program, the Jackson Plan. The big turnout was the fruit of that bottom up nomination process.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#2C2C2C”>Jackson voters signaled that they wanted new leadership, but the question was, who would turnout to vote and what kind of new leadership did they want: the activist veteran Lumumba or the business candidate Lee?

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#2C2C2C”>Lumumba coolly suggested to the Clarion Ledger that race had been “used as a weapon to muster up troops” against his candidacy, because he wants to promote prosperity for all, instead of protecting the business interests of a privileged few. “The real issue shouldn’t be defined that way (in racial terms),” he said. “It should be defined as trying to improve the overall economic health of the entire community.

Lumumba and the People’s Assembly had crafted a program called the Jackson Plan to do just that, but Lee studiously ignored it in favor of slander.

Chickens Come Home to Roost

Indeed Chokwe and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Jackson put the lie to the stereotype of the divisive revolutionary Black militant that is too often shared by progressives, even progressive people of color, as well as conservatives.

At the same time Lumumba’s charge that Lee was primarily backed and paid for by white business and white Republican voters struck a chord with Black voters of all classes as well as politicians. Although it endorsed incumbent Johnson in the primary and was neutral in the runoff, the Jackson Free Press meticulously documented Lee’s Republican business ties, his white voter support and the numerous lawsuits against his business.

Significantly, the legendary grassroots organizer Hollis Watkins worked for Chokwe from the beginning and Congressman Bennie Thompson, the most powerful Black politician in the state, rallied to Lumumba’s support in the runoff. Thompson, the only Democratic congressperson from Mississippi, and Watkins, who has earned tremendous moral authority for his non-stop, courageous organizing from the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee in the early sixties up to today, gave Lumumba a crucial imprimatur of approval and confidence, and mobilized substantial resources to his side.

In short Lumumba was able to build a powerful campaign that united the City’s multi-class Black voters.

It is important to note, however, that the small percentage of white voters Lumumba won were also crucial to his slim 3,000 vote margin of victory. A determined band of white campaigners flanked Lumumba and fought hard to achieve this important result.

Having put all its eggs in the Lee basket, the Republicans did not muster a candidate of their own in the general election of June 4. And they were too demoralized to re-mobilize behind one of the three unknown independents. Lumumba was officially elected mayor in a landslide.

Here is his victory speech: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151668360718738

His election is a lightning bolt: Has anyone with Lumumba’s deep radical political history and who still leads a radical black organization ever been elected mayor of a significant U.S. city?

Final Thoughts

Chokwe Lumumba and his allies now face the formidable task of governing a very poor city in the heart of Dixie. They will need all the support we can give them. Lumumba’s victory should give impetus for progressives throughout the country to rededicate to the crucial importance of the battle for the South.

Indeed the fight for peace, racial and economic justice is vacuous without a commitment to fight for the South. The South is the historic home of racism, poverty and militarism and the base of the reactionary rightwing. But it is also home to a growing majority of African Americans and rapid demographic and social change that, despite outward appearances, is undermining white solidarity state by state at different paces.

The rightwing’s Southern strategy can only be defeated by a progressive Southern strategy.

Mississippi’s progressives are determined to enhance the power of Blacks, win back the House and transform Mississippi into a battleground state in the years to come. The defeat of the personhood amendment and the election of Chokwe Lumumba are hallmarks of this process, and give renewed impulse and energy to recent motion of social justice forces throughout the country to make electoral work a key part of our struggle for freedom.

Bob Wing has been an organizer and writer since 1968, and was the founding editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times/Tiempo de Guerras newspaper. He travelled from his home in Durham to spend eight days working to elect Chokwe Lumumba during the runoff election. The author thanks Ajamu Dillahunt, Makani Themba and Derrick Johnson for their editorial suggestions. 

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