On his way into work every morning, Chokwe Lumumba, the late mayor of Jackson, Miss., used to pass a historical marker: “Jackson City Hall: built 1846-7 by slave labor.”
The building, like the city around it, came into being when African American lives didn’t count for much. Unpaid black workers created Mississippi’s plantation fortunes; as recently as the 1960s, their descendants were still earning $3 to $6 a day as sharecropper farmers. Today, black Jacksonians are almost 10 times as likely as white residents to live in poverty or surrounded by it. There’s no need for a historical marker to trace the roots of the city’s enormous wealth gap. The question is how to narrow it.
Mayor Lumumba had a plan. Believing that history of a new sort could be made here in Jackson, he sought to use public spending to boost local wealth through worker owned cooperatives, urban gardening, and a community-based approach to urban development. His vision, developed over years in social movements, not only prized black experience and drew on the survival strategies that black Americans had come up with over the decades, but also set out to prioritize in the city’s policies the very people who until now had been on the bottom of the state’s list. The goal, he said, was “revolutionary transformation.”
In promoting what he called “solidarity economics,” Mayor Lumumba was continuing a long tradition. “Name any famous African American leader, Ella Baker, [W. E. B.] Dubois, Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, they were all proponents of co-ops,” says Jessica Gordon Nembhard, author of Collective Courage, a new book on the African American experience with worker-owned cooperatives.
“I can’t find any era when most of our leaders weren’t talking about co-ops in one form or another,” says Gordon Nembhard.
“The most significant things happen in history when you get the right people in the right place at the right time, and I think that’s what we are,” Mayor Lumumba told me this February in Jackson.
Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 25, he died after just seven months in office. Now Jacksonians are working to keep his vision alive, not just for the sake of their city, but as a model of alternative development for the nation.
The solidarity economy
The capital city of Mississippi, population 175,000, Jackson is home to some of the poorest citizens in the nation and a higher percentage of African Americans than any other city except Detroit (just under 80 percent).
The racial wealth gap is extreme—laid down, like the city’s infrastructure, decades back. A few years ago, the federal government stepped in, threatening the city with massive fines if the infrastructure crisis wasn’t addressed. But no federal agency stepped in to address the inequality crisis.
Which is why the election last summer of a new mayor who took race and poverty seriously, was a big deal, not only in Jackson, but around the country.
According to a 2013 study by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the gap between the rich and the poor grew more in Mississippi in the last few years than in any other state. (The top fifth of households saw a 19 percent gain in income from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s, while the bottom quintile of earners saw a 17.3 percent drop.)
Lots of leaders talk about reducing poverty and inequality. But Mayor Lumumba ran on an innovative plan to do it and received 85 percent of the vote in June 2013, after beating out the the incumbent mayor and a well-funded former businessman in the Democratic primary. A former public defender and longtime radical activist, Lumumba had the organizing support of the group he co-founded, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, along with the Jackson People’s Assembly, a neighborhood-based participatory democracy group, and the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition, which he’d helped to convene after Hurricane Katrina.
Short of funds, but rich in organizers, Lumumba advanced what he called “The People’s Platform” to revitalize the city—not by chasing away the people with problems but by tackling the wealth gap’s underpinnings: the asset and income disparities that drive populations apart.
“Mayors typically don’t do the things we’re trying to do,” he said. “On the other hand, revolutionaries don’t typically find themselves as mayor.”
Typically, mayors attempt to increase their city’s “assets” and reduce their “liabilities” through promising investors they’ll provide high-quality services at low prices and cutting taxes and crime rates. This February, Lumumba said he’d be doing “some” of that, but he also had a larger goal. Not urban renewal through what he called “urban removal,” but urban revival—for everyone.
“The mission is to accomplish economic development together,” he said.
When it comes to oppression in America, said Lumumba, Mississippians had experienced the worst of it for a long time. In terms of exploitation, disinvestment, deindustrialization and so-called “white flight,” he said:
What’s exciting to me is the prospect of going from worst to first … to take groups of dispossessed black folks here and others, and make us controllers of our own destiny.
The city’s old infrastructure and its corroded pipes, he believed, could actually help.
Rebuilding infrastructure—and the economy
Two years ago, a consent decree signed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice committed the city of Jackson to raising and spending an estimated $1.2 billion over the next 17 years to repair and upgrade its infrastructure.
Lumumba’s first order of business after taking office on July 1, 2013, was raising water and sewer rates and building support for a 1 percent increase in the sales tax on certain items, to be spent specifically on the infrastructure project. In a citywide referendum held this January, an astonishing nine of out 10 residents voted “yes.”
While he initially opposed the sales tax as regressive—and especially the special commission that the state set up to spend the sales-tax dollars—Lumumba eventually agreed to raise the people’s taxes but pledged that his administration would put as many of those dollars as possible back into the people’s pockets.
To accomplish that, he laid out clear principles: buy local and hire local people. According to the census, whites, who make up just 18 percent of Jackson’s population, own nearly 70 percent of businesses in the greater metro area. Under Lumumba, major employers would be required to hire 60 percent or more of their employees from within the city limits. To further expand the economic base of the majority population, he wanted half of project subcontractors and partners to be so-called “minority” developers.
“We want the wealth that is going to be generated here to stay here,” Lumumba often said in speeches.
To ensure the commission’s spending stayed local, he sought to change the city’s laws.
“We have to have rules,” he said. “One of the rules is, if you come to Jackson, you have to hire the people of Jackson.”
As a first step, the city changed its own hiring practices. City data showed 635 nonresident city employees, whose salaries totaled more than $20 million a year. Even as Lumumba replaced the city’s leaky pipes, he planned to stop city money from draining away and supported legislation to change the residency requirements for city workers. This January, Jackson’s City Council voted to ensure that the money the city pays in wages stays within the city limits. All new city employees will have to be city residents. It was to have been only a beginning.
The city is now facing its future without Mayor Lumumba. Chokwe Lumumba died of reported heart failure at the age of 66 on Feb. 25, less than two weeks after we talked.
Next week, on April 8, Jackson will elect a new mayor. The crowded field of candidates includes Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar, a graduate of Tuskegee University in Alabama and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Texas. Chokwe Antar Lumumba worked on both his father’s campaigns—for Jackson City Council in 2009 and for mayor in 2013—and has the support of his father’s grassroots political machine behind him, not to mention his name’s deep resonance.
But Lumumba’s supporters aren’t hanging their hopes solely on the next mayor. “The vision that he represented—the People’s Platform and the solidarity economics, were all social movement pieces,” says Kali Akuno, director of special projects in the late mayor’s administration. “They weren’t framed by him alone.”
Lumumba’s plan for economic democracy was backed by the Jackson People’s Assembly, a self-organized process of local consultation that took off during Lumumba’s 2009 run for city council. Attended by voters and vote-seekers alike, the assemblies were held across the district and are expected to spread citywide in 2014.
“We started by going out into the community asking people, ‘What do you want government to do for you?’” Mattie Wilson Stoddard, vice chair of the Jackson People’s Assembly, told me.
The Jackson People’s Assembly is one of the sponsors of “Jackson Rising: New Economies,” an international conference taking place in May which was to have been a launching pad for Lumumba’s solidarity economy project.
“Jackson Rising is more important than ever,” says Akuno, the late mayor’s point-person on the conference, which focuses heavily on education and organizing around the development and incubation of cooperative enterprises. “We can’t build economic democracy alone.”
In different hands, the city’s infrastructure spending could trigger a development gold rush of the sort seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in disastrous speculation and permanent displacement, especially of low-income residents. Jacksonians need to know their options, says Akuno. Members of worker-owned enterprises in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Basque region of Spain have been invited to come share strategies for creating and keeping wealth in the community.
“We need to make sure we’re not robbed again, but get something that’s going to benefit our children and our grandchildren,” Akuno says of the infrastructure fund.
The best way to do that, Akuno and the other organizers of Jackson Rising believe, is by capturing and concentrating wealth in the hands of local people through solidarity economics and worker-owned cooperatives. It is not a new concept in these parts. Far from it.
When asked if co-ops were a “hippy” thing, Mayor Lumumba’s patrician face cracked a grin and he replied, “There’s a little hippy in all of us. And I think the hippies probably got a lot of it from what used to happen in Africa.”
The first black cooperatives
“The community I grew up in, in a sense, was a co-op although we didn’t use the name,” recalls Lumumba supporter Hollis Watkins, co-founder and president of the Jackson-based movement support organization, Southern Echo, “If you needed work done on your farm before the rain came, we all stepped in. At some point you knew your turn would come.”
Hollis was born to sharecroppers in 1941, the youngest of twelve children.
After graduating college, Watkins joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, a grassroots-based black liberation organization, that played a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“When we talked about rights, economics was always part of the program,” Watkins recalled. “Our people understood that education and jobs and political empowerment were all intertwined.”
Jacksonite Melbah Smith, who worked with Watkins at Southern Echo, and before that with civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, grew up on her grandfather’s farm in Brandon, just fifteen miles east of downtown Jackson. She still remembers the good times—like “hog-killing time,” when the community would pool skills and tools to butcher meat. But she also remembers the hard times: “Ours was the last home in the county to get electricity or a telephone.”
Smith went on to serve as the Mississippi Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a regional nonprofit which has helped create or support more than 200 cooperatives and credit unions in 10 states, providing services and meeting needs that were going unmet.
“Cooperatives were born out of a need to bring services to underserved communities,” says Smith. Co-ops were also as a way to survive discrimination.
Smith’s grandfather collaborated with his brothers to buy farmland after emancipation. Her father, born in in 1910, grew up under the system of de facto and de jure apartheid known as Jim Crow. Under Jim Crow, not only were impossible obstacles erected to deny African Americans the vote; black farmers were also denied loans and credit from white-controlled local banks.
The first black cooperatives date back to the colonial age and “beneficial and burial societies”—founded by slaves who gathered dues covertly to pay for one another’s burials. Free blacks started insurance companies to pay for cemeteries and doctors’ bills. The first, according to a study by NAACP founder W. E. B. DuBois, was incorporated by the AME Church in Philadelphia in 1787.
In his 1907 study of black economic cooperation, DuBois includes the Underground Railroad, which transported hundreds of thousands of refugees across thousands of miles, via cooperating networks of supporters, organizers, and sympathetic landowners.
After the Civil War, “freedom” for millions of formerly enslaved men and women turned on their ability to combine their means in order to purchase land and sustain themselves—or find themselves forced back into bonded labor on their former plantations.
“The wonder is not that so many, but that so few, have needed help,” DuBois quotes a chief of the federal Freedmen’s Bureau, which was set up to assist freed blacks in 1865.
Almost 100 years later, black political rights were still tied to black economic resilience. When the civil rights movement of the ‘60s started, recalcitrant whites responded by exploiting the economic vulnerability of the movement’s base.
“The Selma to Montgomery marchers couldn’t stay on sharecroppers’ land” recalls Jackson Rising supporter Wendell Paris, who helped organize the historic 1965 voting rights march that took place some 250 miles to the east of where he now lives near Jackson. Hundreds of tenant farmers were evicted for standing up for their rights.
Economic power is political power
The land of the Mississippi River Delta is famously fertile; rich enough to capitalize the early U.S. economy. But the people who have worked that land have rarely been enriched.
From the founding of the United States through the Civil War to the modern era, the plantation class, with overwhelming power and resources, has fought to keep their advantage. In the civil rights era—along with lynching, firebombing, and assassination—farmers who joined the NAACP would lose their loans, and African Americans who registered to vote risked losing hard-to-come-by employment.
Wendell Paris remembers spending a week persuading an older domestic worker to register. He took the woman, named Catherine Jones, to the registrar’s office every morning, starting on a Monday.
“She’d stay there all day too afraid to sign her name.” Finally, that Thursday afternoon, she signed and by Friday morning, she’d lost her job.
“Reprisals were immediate,” Paris recalls.
Known for her role as a voting rights activist and founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer also started a co-op, “Freedom Farm,” to support civil rights activists punished for their work.
With Hamer, Watkins started buying clubs and selling co-ops as a way to help poor families he met through the Head Start program. “They needed some economic stability before they could even begin to change the political situation,” says Watkins.
In the 1970s, Watkins went on to manage two large farms bought by the Nation of Islam in Mississippi. “As manager of the Nation of Islam’s farms, Watkins was able to buy farming supplies in bulk and share costly farm equipment with poorer farmers. Paris was doing the same with SNCC in Alabama.
The white establishment was quick to react to the co-op push, fearing, presumably, that black coops could shift the power-balance.
“At one point we bought cows and white folks poisoned the water and killed the cows,” says Watkins.
Paris remembers finding a market in New York that would pay almost three times the price Alabama farmers could get locally for their cucumbers. The local growers’ cooperative rented a truck. On just their second run to market, state troopers pulled them over. “We asked Governor (George) Wallace why he’d stopped our truck. He said he didn’t have to tell us why. He could detain any vehicle for 72 hours,” recalled Paris.
“Seventy-two hours later, we opened the door and the entire load poured out.” The cucumbers had liquefied in the burning summer heat.
Having retired from the federation, Melbah Smith directs the Coalition for a Prosperous Mississippi, which works to change Mississippi’s laws concerning cooperatives. Currently, only agricultural-based entities can incorporate in Mississippi. Any other type of cooperatives must be charted out-of-state. According to the coalition, 44 percent of the 162 non-agricultural co-ops in Mississippi report that they could not have opened their businesses had it not been set up as a co-op.
“Co-ops are part of how we grew up,” says Smith. In her view, their future is bright.
Just as cooperation worked for rural Mississippians—providing electricity or loans or social services in poor communities—so too can city dwellers use the cooperative model to pool resources and share the risk of starting a business. Cooperatives provide a way for low-income communities to build assets and create wealth, the decisive factor in narrowing the racial wealth gap. They have a strong track record of raising wages for their members too, and of staying put. Indeed, the experience of working together on an equal footing with co-workers often leads to to other sorts of civic engagement.
Which is part, no doubt, of what Smith will be telling participants at the Jackson Rising. Still not retired, she’s helping to plan the conference.
The immediate threat poor blacks face today in Jackson comes from outside developers and speculators with the resources to move in and take over their neighborhoods.
Nia Umoja belongs to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. She moved to West Jackson last year with her husband. For just $1,500 they were able to purchase a single family home a couple of blocks off Capitol Street (a major east-west thoroughfare), within walking distance of the city zoo and Jackson State University.
Like the majority of the homes around hers, Umoja’s house needs work. When she moved in, the empty plots on two sides of hers were overgrown with high, scrubby trees and bushes. According to recent surveys, some 40 percent of the lots nearby are abandoned or vacant. Eighty-eight percent of the population lives in poverty. Payday lending stores outnumber groceries 10 to one.
“You have to start with what you have to get what you want,” community organizers say. What West Jackson has is a lot of overgrown land, a lot of underemployed labor, and a good amount of (albeit rusty) farming experience.
“The people here have lost their voice, but they’re not resource-less,” Umoja told me. When she surveyed her neighbors about their assets, she found that while they may not have considered themselves “skilled,” they had talents. “They grew up on farms,” explained Umoja. “They know how to grow things.”
In August 2013, Umoja helped establish the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson with the hope of establishing a cooperative farm. Under Mayor Lumumba, the group was able to clear 1.5 acres of vacant city-owned land just off Capitol Street. Near the north end of the plot sits an abandoned Dairy Queen whose forecourt would make a great green market, she says, if only she could get the long-absentee owner to agree to sell, or the city to take it over.
Umoja and her colleagues have grand plans for what they are calling the Grenada Street Folk Garden, but private developers are already coming around and just a few blocks away, lots are already selling for $40,000 to $80,000.
Some would like to see gentrification come to West Jackson, like it came to the city’s North Midtown section. That area too, was a high crime, low income, low-property-price area not long ago. Now it’s one of the city’s leading neighborhoods, thanks to development funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. With help from Habitat for Humanity and private “green” developers, the Jackson Housing Authority demolished dilapidated houses, retrofitted others, and watched rents and property prices rise.
In 2012, a group of institutional stakeholders in West Jackson—a group including Jackson State University, the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the Jackson Zoo, Jackson-Evers Municipal Airport, and the Voice of Jackson Calvary Ministries (a church group)—hired Duvall Decker Architects, the same firm that worked on North Midtown, to draw up a master plan for West Jackson. Some are already calling it the “Capitol Street Corridor.”
At a community meeting convened by architect Roy Decker this February, Umoja and Akuno were shown half a dozen colorful maps, detailing “assets” and “concerns” in the West Jackson neighborhood. On Decker’s maps, the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson sits on plots featuring almost no assets and many “concerns,” including homelessness, crime, a high proportion of vacant properties, and few businesses or public services. Still, when Umoja got a chance to describe her garden plan, the response was mostly positive.
“Sounds good. Like hog-killing time in the old days,” said one resident.
“We just have to work harder to get the word out,” Umoja said.
Whether change is driven by worker owned co-ops or outside speculators, it’s going to take some doing to achieve “revolutionary transformation” in Jackson. Investment is driven by demand, says Mukesh Kumar, professor of urban planning at Jackson State University, and right now, Jackson has very little of that. Downtown is already circled by a big sticky suburban ring, sucking shoppers, contractors, and prime business out of the city’s center.
The Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce, which backed the North Midtown plan, is setting its hopes for growth on further development of the city’s “medical corridor,” the building of a 1,500-acre downtown lake, and an arts and culture expansion to “attract talent.”
It’s hard to see how any of those plans will work. Several major hospitals (including Baptist Health Systems, University of Mississippi Medical Center, and St. Dominic’s) and as many major colleges have left the inner-city core poor up to this point. For tourists, Jackson’s competing with Nashville and New Orleans.
At least Mayor Lumumba’s plan to stimulate internal demand through local employment in public works has a proven track record. Federal public works programs helped recovery after the Great Depression, just as reconstruction projects helped rebuild the south after the Civil War (until they fell victim to Jim Crow). As civil rights organizers learned, for people to participate in the political process, their economic necessities need to be seen to. After years of ineffective government, Jackson needs both political, as well as economic revival.
Lumumba had the vision of a radical, but the manners of a movement-builder. He reached across political lines to build support for his plan. One of his first calls after his election was to Duane O’Neal, head of the Jackson Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Before Lumumba’s death, O’Neal said he’d already had more and “more meaningful” meetings with the new mayor than he did with the preceding administration in all the 16 years they had been in office. Lumumba won respect because, as O’Neal put it to me, “he’s shown himself to be a man of action.”
Lumumba’s mission was “development together.” He understood his goal was, as much as anything else, to re-engage the city.
“The job is not a single individual affair but a collective affair, and the creation of jobs is not an individual affair but a collective [one.]”
Cooperation in the handful of urban gardens currently in Jackson, has already brought people together, says Akuno. What Jackson does not yet have are any worker, producer or housing cooperatives. Only a few cooperative Credit Unions operate within the city limits. Jackson Rising seeks to change that.
With only a few months to go, organizers of the Jackson Rising conference were struggling this February with how to appeal simultaneously to entrepreneurially minded students and Nia Umoja’s hard-up neighbors. Charlotte and Luke Landemeaux, founders of Jackson’s one existing food co-op, Rainbow Foods, (incorporated in Delaware), were feeling anxious about competition from Jackson’s first Whole Foods, which has just opened its doors. But everyone’s immediate problem was a good one. The first in a series of “Grassroots Economics” meetings, intended to build to the May conference, was filled to capacity.
In the 1960s, when they were fighting for bottom-up democracy, Fannie Lou Hamer and the members of SNCC used to say “The people must decide.”
Chokwe Lumumba and the Jackson Peoples Assembly used this phrase over and over during his campaign. Even though he’s gone, it’s hard not to hear those words echoing around Jackson more loudly than ever.
As they ask themselves which way forward for Jackson and Jacksonians, the answer comes: “The people must decide.”
Laura Flanders wrote this article for YES! Magazine‘s Commonomics project. Laura is YES! Magazine’s 2014 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of “GRITtv with Laura Flanders.” Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.