[News] Mississippi's Capital Wrestles Chokwe Lumumba's With His Economic Vision
news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Apr 4 13:05:39 EDT 2014
After Death of Radical Mayor, Mississippi's Capital Wrestles With His
Mayor Chokwe Lumumba implemented only the first steps of his plan to
address Jackson's extreme income inequality, which most seriously
affected black residents. Now the city faces a choice between vastly
different approaches to economic development.
by Laura Flanders
posted Apr 01, 2014
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
"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
<http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/28/2836000.html>, 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
According to a 2013 study <http://www.cbpp.org/files/11-15-12sfp.pdf> 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
*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
Even as Lumumba replaced those leaky pipes, he planned to stop city
money from draining away.
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
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 <http://www.city.jackson.ms.us/DocumentCenter/View/944>
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
<http://jacksonrising.wordpress.com/> 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
<http://jacksonrising.wordpress.com/local/local-cooperatives/> 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
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
<http://www.greaterjacksonpartnership.com/files/3103.pdf> 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
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
<http://www.yesmagazine.org/>'s Commonomics project
<http://www.yesmagazine.org/commonomics/>. Laura is YES! Magazine's 2014
Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder
and host of "GRITtv with Laura Flanders <http://grittv.org/>." Follow
her on Twitter @GRITlaura. <http://www.twitter.com/GRITlaura>
Natalie Lubsen contributed research to this article.
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