On a flight from Detroit to Washington, D.C., in 1977, a young lawyer named Chokwe Lumumba saw something he'd never seen before: a flight-attendant crew consisting of three black women. Quiet, tall and self-confident, Lumumba wore a dashiki and high-water pants. Two of the women caught his eye, so he devised a plan to flirt with both of them. Lumumba asked both women for a cup of hot chocolate. One forgot his order; the attendant who remembered was a petite woman named Patricia Ann Burke.
Essence Magazine detailed the relationship, and its ups and downs, in 1992. Lumumba and Burke exchanged phone numbers, and soon, she moved from Minneapolis into his tiny Detroit apartment. In 1978, the couple had a daughter, Rukia. Lumumba had a son, Kambon, from a previous relationship.
Lumumba bonded with his little girl while his wife, who changed her name to Nubia, was working, crisscrossing the nation and the globe on the flight crew. The couple waited until Rukia was 2 to get married, Nubia told Essence. It was his second marriage. The first ended in the early '70s because, in part because in Lumumba's mind, fidelity was secondary to the movement.
"My politics were dictated by the climate and agenda of the '60s when the overriding objecting was the push for Black Power. Most black men received a heavy dose of the macho ethic in the process," Lumumba told Essence.
Years before he met Nubia and started a family, Lumumba dropped out of Wayne State University Law School in Detroit and moved to Jackson. In Mississippi, he was a Cabinet member in the Republic of New Afrika, which purchased land for a new black nation in the South. Lumumba was vice president of the provisional government of the RNA, which antagonized and was harassed by local police. The RNA's plans went up in smoke one morning in 1971, which the Jackson Police Department stormed the RNA's headquarters on Lynch Street. A shootout resulted in the death of a police officer and the arrests of 11 of Lumumba's comrades. Lumumba was not involved in the melee, but the high-testosterone environment attracted women to the intense personalities that were prerequisite for men in Black Nationalist movements.
Lumumba said the political climate of the time provided a rationale and a justification for his behavior. The movement came first—everything else, including family responsibilities, was secondary. When he became a husband and father for a second time, he told Nubia that she would have to get used to his cheating.
Despite her diminutive stature and her lack of familiarity with the movement, Nubia wasn't having that. She left. The couple reconciled, but Lumumba said he remained distant and unfocused on his marriage even though he stopped cheating. The couple had another separation, this one lasting for more than a year.
Around this time, Lumumba was representing defendants in the 1981 Brinks armored car robbery, organized by a group called the Black Liberation Army, and, later, a group of inmates accused of killing three guards at an Illinois prison.
On top of the high-stakes cases he handled, the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi had threatened Lumumba, and police officers had pointed loaded guns at his head.
None of that bothered him, but his crumbling marriage ate at him. Originally, he thought that having a wife and children was incongruous with freedom fighting, but he realized that a lot of men in the freedom movement had successful long-term marriages and were good dads. The most notable among these was his hero, Malcolm X.
Once he decided that his family was as worthy a cause to fight for as black liberation and human rights, Lumumba convinced Nubia to move to Jackson.
It was a hard sell for Nubia, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and had lived in northern cities her entire life. The move to Mississippi marked a turning point in the Lumumbas' relationship. Nubia no longer represented an obstacle to his personal, professional and political goals. She was his partner and closest confidant.
By the time they moved into a large ranch home with a pool in Jackson, they had a second child, a son named Chokwe Antar. When Chokwe Antar was little, he remembers sneaking into his parents' bedroom and lie on the floor and listen as they talked. Whenever Lumumba was considering taking on a big case, he and Nubia talked through it before discussing it with Chokwe Antar and Rukia.
Lumumba's home life more closely resembled that of Cliff and Clair Huxtable than Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver.
Whenever conflicts arose, family meetings were called whether they were about neglected chores, Chokwe Antar's refusal to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Rukia's missing curfew or a potentially controversial client Chokwe was taking that might draw negative publicity.
"That's my norm. It's not unusual to hear someone not agree with my father. It's not unusual to overhear a conversation where someone has some venomous words. It toughened my skin for something like a campaign," said Chokwe Antar, who served as spokesman for his father's winning run for Jackson mayor.
Mediating controversy inside and outside the Lumumba household became as routine as summer vacation planning. At school, fellow students, and even some teachers, openly expressed the contempt they held for their father and some of his clients to Chokwe Antar and Rukia.
"It was hard to hear people talk nasty about him and the things he was doing. That was very difficult," Rukia Lumumba said.
Otherwise, the Lumumbas say they had a normal upbringing. Nubia collected artwork and other furnishings for the home long before they decided to move to Mississippi. When they got situated in Jackson, the family introduced themselves to their new northwest Jackson neighbors on Halloween night.
Both parents were busy—Chokwe in court and Nubia flying four days a week, but Nubia managed the household.
"She was the backbone. She was the scheduler, the holiday planner," Rukia said of her mother.
"She was the social butterfly, too. My father is more of a quiet guy who likes basketball and really doesn't have to be around a lot of people. She was the ultimate networker and taught us how to be more like that and taught my father how to come out of his social shell."
Where Nubia was the family's iron-fisted leader, Chokwe was the democratic administrator.
"They were just fair, and they listened. They didn't tell you what to do. They told you why you needed to do it, and they listened when we had concerns or complaints. They made you feel like you had a voice," Rukia said.
Rukia and Chokwe Antar both attended historically black universities—Rukia attended Tougaloo College, and Chokwe Antar Tuskegee University in Alabama. And over the objections of their mother, both Lumumba children followed their father into the legal profession. Rukia received her law degree from Howard University in 2006 and is now the youth services director for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Center for Community Alternatives. Chokwe Antar received his law degree from Thurgood Marshall Law School in Houston in 2008. He is the managing attorney for Freelon & Associates, where his father is senior partner.
Nubia, who passed away in 2003, thought her son, who enjoyed the finer things in life, should go into a more lucrative line of work than law.
Chokwe Antar, who enjoyed going to court with his father, said his father inspired him to practice law.
"One thing I would see as I got older was the many people who seemed to be shuffled in and out of the system, and it just didn't seem that everybody was guilty," Chokwe Antar says. "It occurred to me later on that sometimes people don't have the financial means to defend their innocence."
Even with their father occupying the mayor's office, the Lumumba children foresee no changes in their relationship with their father. Rukia, the mother of a 5-year-old, Qadir, said her father enjoys video chatting with his daughter and grandson.
The elder Lumumba also has a significant other, Gloria Elmore, who was featured in his campaign ads. Chokwe Antar, who will likely take over his father's law practice, said his father has always had a busy schedule, but the two always find time to bond—or commiserate over Detroit sports teams.
Besides, he said, "City Hall is right across the street from the courthouse."
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