What will the election of new Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba mean for our somewhat besieged city and the communities that surround it? (anyone who lives in the Jackson metro area and who doesn’t believe that as Jackson goes so goes the metro area is being both short-sighted and provincial). How will he choose to govern the city, and how will his lifetime of civil rights activism and his career as a defense lawyer influence his decision making and term as mayor?
It would be constructive for anyone interested in the future and direction of the city for the next 4 years to try to put into context not only Lumumba’s well-known public and professional life, but his formative years as well, when he was a teenager and a college student in Michigan, in the years before he came to Mississippi. As a young African American growing up in the city of Detroit, and like many others who grew up during that time, Lumumba was right in the middle of all the chaos and turmoil of the 1960s. He turned 16 in 1963, the year Medgar Evers was assassinated, was 18 years old in 1965, the year that Malcolm X was killed at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, and was 21 years of age and an undergraduate political science student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. And he and his family were still living in the Detroit area during the Detroit Race Riots of 1967.
Lumumba’s family was involved in and supported the civil rights movement in Detroit during that time: his parents raised money locally for SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), and often hosted at their home the organizers who came to the city to raise money for the organization. Lumumba has said in the past that a speech that Dr. King gave in Detroit in 1963 (probably the one he made at Detroit’s Cobo Hall and which was the basis for the famous “I have a dream speech” in Washington later that year), inspired him as a young man of 16 to devote his life to civil rights. To Lumumba, King’s assassination in 1968 was “the single most important thing in my political development”.
Yet it was an earlier tragedy, the 1955 murder in Money, Mississippi of Emmett Till, that Lumumba recalls as having the greatest and most lasting impact on him. In a recent interview he said he can still remember seeing the open casket photo of Till in Jet magazine, Till’s face horribly disfigured, and how, as an 8 year old, the image of that photo traumatized him and brought him to tears. And then he recalls that when he asked his mother how something like Till’s murder could happen, she told him that it was not about the hatred and violence of only a few men, but that it was about a disease, an American disease called racism.
It would seem that one of the keys to understanding Lumumba, especially for those in the city who either did not support him or who more publicly opposed him politically in the election, might be in understanding the full context of Lumumba’s personal and family history, and in acknowledging that the society he grew up in considered him at best a second-class citizen during his formative years. The gulf between Lumumba and those power brokers and business interests that attempted to install their own candidate in the mayor’s office seems wide, and it is difficult to predict how hard they will try to work with the mayor to bridge that gap. It will mostly be a function of how convinced they are that he is a political force to be reckoned with over the long term. They will be more disposed to negotiate with him if they believe he will be a two-term mayor.
For a group whose core belief is that the people should never decide, that important decisions are better left to an elite group of mostly white men, it will be quite an adjustment for them to have to deal with a man whose motto (both pre- and post-election) is “the people must decide”. We would not expect to hear that this group was reading Santayana in their monthly book club, nor believe that they were contemplating the consequences of his pronouncements on the inevitability of history. It is as if they and others in the majority here in Mississippi are unable or unwilling to place themselves and their community into any kind of historical context. Rather than squarely confront Mississippi’s past they prefer to forget it, as if it is nothing more than a public relations and marketing problem. It explains why many of them, both elected officials and others in power, seem to believe that all the markers they have installed to memorialize Mississippi Blues artists or Civil Rights activists creates for them their very own comfortable stations of the southern cross. Used to privilege and power, they become afflicted with a condition I like to call, with apologies to Nina Simone, the Mississippi Gosh Darn syndrome.
This state and this capital city does not abide outliers or outlaws. It trusts in, perhaps one might argue even insists upon, a rigid form of groupthink. It is why those who wish to forget and not remember also encourage and expect everyone else to do the same. And it is precisely why they are forced to insist that those who do attempt to examine and learn from the past are performing some kind of radical act, because politically they must marginalize them, push them at least in the public perception outside the mainstream, and by doing so keep them outside the corridors and offices of power. It is one of the things that prevents the city and the state from moving forward.
Which brings us back to Mayor Lumumba, past outlier extraordinaire. It is ironic that Lumumba now finds himself viewed by some as having become, upon his election, that which he used to regularly confront: “the establishment”, the man in charge. In the public’s eyes he has overnight become directly responsible for the pothole(s) in the streets, for the water and sewer rate hike, for the daily crimes that occur, even for the developments that didn’t or don’t get built and that languish like our very own southern version of an unfinished Potemkin village. For a man who has often been on the short side of the “The State vs….” legal equation, he will now personify the city in “John Doe vs. the City of Jackson” lawsuits. How deftly will he be able to navigate this transition from societal critic and human rights defender to mayor and manager? And must those roles be mutually exclusive? Can he be a revolutionary mayor, and will he be able to fundamentally change the calculus of how this city is governed?
To be successful, at least initially, Lumumba will have to find a way to communicate, in the simplest way possible: 1) that he is not responsible for the endemic city problems that have been decades in the making, like the water and sewer infrastructure and the school system and the declining tax base, and 2) that although he is now the duly elected mayor, he is not now and never has been a member of that previously defined establishment, the group which should be accurately identified as bearing some or most of the responsibility for those very same endemic problems. Lumumba’s strength and support, in my opinion, is directly related to the electorate’s perception of him as someone who is willing to take on that very establishment, to shake things up and perhaps even, when necessary, to confront them and even to publicly battle with them.
It will be to his political advantage, at least as he begins his first term of office, to continue to be seen as someone who is fighting the system. It’s a bit of a magic act; he won’t be able to do so indefinitely, because at some point, inexorably, the crushing weight of the city’s problems and more importantly the responsibility for them will transfer to his shoulders. But until then, perhaps through 2014, he will be able to play the role of mayor as crusader and reformer. The public will give him the space and some amount of time to take a fresh look at the systemic problems that bedevil the city, but at some point, a point which will probably for him come sooner than later, they will demand solutions and measurable progress.
When I began this post a few weeks ago I found myself thinking about how the legacies of Medgar Evers, Dr. King and Malcolm X might inform or influence the new mayor’s governing style, and what he might take from each of them, especially because in the public’s mind Lumumba is identified with Malcolm X and his political beliefs (Lumumba was a co-founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement). None of these men ever chose to run for or served in political office while they were alive, because of the pervasive racism and discrimination of their time. And of course they were all dead before they turned 40, depriving us of the chance to see them govern and change. How difficult a road would they have had to travel had they been elected? What kind of political careers might they have had, what might a Mayor Evers, a Congressman Shabazz, or a Governor or Senator King have accomplished? Evers would have been 63 in 1988, Malcolm X 62, and Dr. King only 59, still a relatively young age for higher political office. Lumumba, a delayed heir to their legacies, will now define for us, in some small way, how they might have governed.
During the campaign and in interviews after the election Lumumba has taken pains to emphasize his connection to King’s methods and his great respect for King’s accomplishments. Some might see that as mere campaign rhetoric, an attempt to make him seem more like a mainstream civil rights leader, and it was clear that tempering his public image as a “radical” was certainly a concern for the Lumumba campaign, especially during the runoff. My hunch is that it is more than that. While many of those who did not support or vote for Lumumba in the election, especially the whiteelectorate, may still somehow see him as an unrepentant black nationalist (based upon his membership in the RNA and his involvement in the Malcolm X Grassroots movement), any close examination of his record and rhetoric over the course of his public life tells a much more detailed and nuanced story, and shows the evolution of his ideas and political beliefs, something that would be expected of anyone who is Lumumba’s age. His most difficult task, if he is to be at all successful in uniting the city and moving it forward, will be to define himself more fully to that part of the electorate which still sees him as an outlier and an outsider.
Two months after his election Lumumba is still carefully plotting his path and assembling the administrative team that will help him govern. He has a budget to put together and get confirmed by October, not a small task when you are doing it for the first time (as mayor), and that, along with all the personnel decisions he must make, will keep him busy through the next month. Lumumba will then have the opportunity, perhaps even the responsibility, to refocus the city, to define his term and his style of governing, as he tries to avoid becoming the next man in the middle.
Will he be able to recalibrate where the center is? Will he be interested in in reexamining the roles and the benefits of what can only be called the “shadow government”, those quasi-governmental agencies that wield tremendous yet hidden power over the lives of the city’s residents, agencies like the JRA, and the CMPDD and the JCVB, and Downtown Partners (extra points for those of you who know what I’m talking about, and if you don’t you should). Will he have the fortitude and more importantly the political capital to take them on? Lumumba’s history shows that he does not shrink from taking on difficult battles, but those entities and their powerful allies will not give up power easily.
In looking back at the last four years one could argue that the lack of a unifying and inspirational vision is what led to Mayor Johnson’s downfall, that his technocratic approach did not resonate with the electorate, as evidenced by the results of the election, and that the voters hungered for a dynamic leader who could shine a bright light and show them the way forward and upward. It is now Lumumba who is entrusted with setting the agenda and direction for the city, and to provide it with a vision of what it can be, to an electorate and a city that desperately needs and is looking for some kind of unifying vision.
As a result of his election Lumumba now holds at least one of the levers of power, but so far it is unclear how much power that gives him and how aggressively he will be able wield it, for there will be push back from those who have wielded power over this city’s direction for these many years. He will be unable to move the city forward without at least their benign support, yet he knows that it is their way which has led the city to where it is.
So we will watch as Mayor Lumumba navigates his evolution from radical lawyer to city councilman to city mayor. It is clear that the man who has come this far in his professional and political career does not lack for intelligence, tactical brilliance or political acumen. In the courtroom those qualities led him to many successes. The task in front of him now will require those qualities and much more. We shall watch with acute interest and some sense of hope that for Jackson’s sake he is ultimately successful.