Part One: The Past Is Passed. Or Is It Prologue?
Since the somewhat surprising victory of Councilman Chokwe Lumumba in the Jackson mayoral runoff, and his subsequent victory in the general election, I’ve been thinking about what his ascension to the mayor’s office will mean for Jackson and eventually, for the state itself. As the new mayor’s inaugural events begin to take place in the next week, perhaps it is time, as we approach the 50-year anniversary of so many of the momentous events of the civil rights era, to both contemplate and attempt to calibrate just how far we’ve come.
The last death throes of the Melton administration were my introduction to the city’s politics and the city’s dismissal of Frank Melton in 2009 and its return to the sober ways of Harvey Johnson felt as if it were the collective action of a citizenry which had gone on a weekend binge, and which was now willing to return on bended knee to ask forgiveness, with a half-hearted promise to not stray again. But after the voters and Johnson got back together, both promising they would really try to change, there remained between them serious issues that simmered beneath the surface of their relationship, and remained unresolved over the next four years. Towards the end of the mayor’s term it was like a marriage that had lost its spark and passion, with the partners remaining together more as a result of the deadening weight of inertia and accommodation than any real desire to work things out.
And that’s okay until at some point one or the other, and it’s usually the voters, decide it’s just not worth holding on anymore, and publicly casts about for a new partner. The evidence of that de facto separation went public on May 7th, as a resounding majority of the city’s voters finally got to their breaking point and cited irreconcilable differences with Mayor Johnson as he came in third in the primary. And in the days right after, it seemed that the city suddenly awakened and came to grips with the notion that it might actually be willing to not just consider but actually elect the radical lawyer Chokwe Lumumba to be their next mayor. It was as if they were contemplating, in an electoral blink of an eye, the political equivalent of a 360, gauging the degree of difficulty and the relative danger, quickly comparing it to the relative safety and conventionality of the Lee campaign (“It’s time for a change”) and coming down on the side of choosing the 360 instead.
This was yet another sobering thought for the electorate, for if their selection of Melton was a swerve to the right on the political spectrum, to some of the more reactionary and conservative orthodoxies of the 1960s, given Melton’s overemphasis on law and order, crime-stopping and his wielding of unbridled executive power (and his disinterest in the root causes of the city’s problems), electing Lumumba seemed not so much a corrective turn back to the left but more a steer into a skid without slowing down, as if they thought that the best way to correct their errant rightward skid was by turning into it and coming all the way back around to somewhere left of center, in the hope that they might get the vehicle under control.
I’ve come to see the past 20 years or so of Jackson politics as historically a holding action, a transitional period as the city (and in a lesser way the state) reflected on and reacted to the increase in African American registration and attendant political power, and the first-time election of many African American candidates (Mayor Johnson was one of those, in 1997). But in politics power taken by one group or segment of the electorate is power taken from another (politics is a zero-sum game), and the past 20 years in the city were the setting for the not always orderly struggle and negotiation between the white power brokers and moneyed class, and the rising African American political candidates and their supporters.
Ghosts of Mississippi Past
Yet, as the planned commemoration of the life and legacy of Medgar Evers approached in almost perfect unison with the runoff election, what seemed lost in the long-planned gala celebration was any serious community-wide recognition of the awful and brutal truth of his death, and the underlying systemic societal forces that caused it. And on that night, as the last notes of BB King’s The Thrill Is Gone faded into the air of the Convention Center on the night of the gala, they called out to the ever-present and eternal ghosts of Mississippi, silent yet eerily still palpable. And as the guests and political dignitaries honored and remembered Medgar and his legacy throughout the night, and mourned his courageous and too short life, this city somehow still seemed to be insufficiently capable of, and emotionally unwilling to, confront and come to grips with, fifty years later, the shock of the civil rights era, the impact of the political turmoil of the late sixties, and the aftermath of legislated racial equality.
For if one listened closely it was possible to hear in Lumumba’s campaign and his rallies the echoes of the language of the sixties: liberation, people’s assemblies, self-determination, white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. No, this was not the stuff of most 21st century urban elections nor the language spoken by any conventional African American candidate whose goal is to win an election, even in a city that is 80% African American. And yet it is worth noting that in Jackson, MS, in 2013, Lumumba’s was a winning message, no matter how much it was toned down, deemphasized or simplified for campaign purposes, and one that resonated at some level to an overwhelming majority of African American voters. And we, as well as those who opposed him, cannot complain that the voters did not know his core political beliefs, or who they were getting when they elected him. He has, over the course of 40 years, been almost unnaturally consistent in that respect. It is safe to say that most voters understand that for Lumumba the struggle for and path to civil rights, or as he prefers to call them human rights, is never the middle road.
And has there ever been a mayoral candidate in this American city or for that matter any American city who would be eager to list the following on their resume and campaign bio: former vice president of the Republic of New Africa (RNA). Lead counsel in the Brinks Case, representing a group of revolutionaries charged with stealing $1.6 million and killing 2 police officers and a guard in NY. Defense attorney for Asata Shakur, Mutulu Shakur and the rapper Tupac Shakur. Co-founder of the Malcolm X grassroots movement, and supporter of that organization’s plan for Jackson as contained in the Jackson-Kush plan. It is safe to say that if the local Democratic Party had defined the type of professional and life experience they were looking for in a candidate, those would not be among them.
In his essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about the “paranoid style”, to describe a political (as opposed to clinical) personality type that, confronted by political turmoil, is infused with a sense of suspiciousness, exaggeration and conspiratorial fantasy, and that sees the struggle to preserve their ways and way of life in apocalyptic terms, and their task as defending the established political order and system of values. Hofstadter said that people who were affected in this way, who felt that they were once in “possession” of their country, now saw themselves as dispossessed, as if their America had largely been taken away from them. (I will leave it to the reader to apply this idea to our national politics) Finally, because of this sense of dispossession, the paranoid comes to see the enemy and their leaders as superhuman; powerful, ubiquitous and sinister, able to work outside the mechanisms of history. And so the paranoid type lives in a state of impending doom, their lives and the future of their way of life always and constantly at a turning point (“The Future of Jackson Depends On It!”), To the paranoid element, such an evil opponent must be eliminated. By any means necessary.
“The paranoid spokesman, sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms...He is always manning the barricades of civilization... he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. “
Local Heroes And Villains
The actions of many in the white community who opposed Lumumba during the runoff campaign reeked of the paranoid style, as did, to a lesser extent, the Lee campaign attempt to portray Lumumba, with perhaps more political finesse, as an outsider, not like the electorate, and as one who was prepared to overturn the established political order (as opposed to the Lee campaign’s intent, which was to overturn just the mayor). The efforts of this local paranoid element had the stink of desperation, and the blogs and some of the media coverage during this period amplified the worst aspects of Lumumba’s otherness, and followed the paranoid format, describing the coming municipal apocalypse, in often vicious and insulting language, which I will not repeat here but which can be found on the JFP site as well as other sites with very little effort.
The most odious charge against Mr. Lumumba was that while serving as an officer of the Republic of New Africa, he was also informing on the organization for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a charge I’m sure he found, at best, ironic. Its author ( and I use that term with a fair amount of sarcasm) thought it would have the dual effect of reminding people that Lumumba was a leader in the RNA (bad enough on its own) and at the same time portray him as the pariah of any organization, the rat or snitch. Meanwhile, the Lee campaign used the last week to run an ad using Lumumba's own recorded words to persuade voters that Lumumba didn't like police, wasn’t a "Barack Obama Democrat" and did not believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While at the same time complaining both publicly and privately that it was unfair of anyone, especially Congressman Thompson or the Lumumba campaign, to suggest that they were not Democratic enough.
There was even a misguided (unguided?) Whitwellian attempt, chiefly through social media, amongst the paranoid stylists, to promote and then orchestrate a surreptitious write-in vote for Ward 1 Councilman Quentin Whitwell in the general election, trying to parlay the overwhelming bloc vote of the white electorate for Lee into support for a white candidate who was not running, and who could not have been elected in this manner anyway. It was an effort that seemed to bank on the worst stereotypes of African American voters and candidates (“We believe that the turn out for Chuckwe [sic] will not be huge, due to the fact he thinks he already has won.”) And Whitwell’s denial that he was running was telling: instead of just saying he was not running and had not given anyone the authority to conduct a write-in campaign for him, he took pains to add “when I run for the mayoral office, it will be taken seriously, and I won’t use shenanigans to get elected”. Let us be both forewarned and calmed by his assertion. And perhaps we might want to use the next four years, for it may take much of the electorate at least that long, to prepare ourselves for the task of taking a Whitwell mayoral run seriously.
On June 4th, finally, in his third municipal election of this 2013 political season, and in an altogether anticlimactic vote, Mr. Lumumba was confirmed as the next mayor of Jackson in the general election, garnering 85% of the vote. He will be inaugurated on July 1st.