Independent Politics and Self-Determination: An Interview with Chokwe Lumumba
We present this discussion with Chokwe Lumumba to inform readers about a project combining community organizing and electoral efforts in a changing South, “under the independent banner of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party” as explained in the section on 2013 electoral campaigns in The Jackson-Kush Plan: The Struggle for Black Self-Determination and Economic Prosperity.
“The objective of running these candidates and winning these offices is to create political space and advance policy that will provide maneuverable space for the autonomous initiatives promoted as part of the J-K plan to develop and grow. They are also intended to be used to build more Ward-based People’s Assemblies and Task Forces in Jackson, base build for the overall plan, and raise political consciousness about the need for self-determination and economic democracy…
“In order to create the democratic space desired, we aim to introduce several critical practices and tools into the governance process of the Jackson city government that will help foster and facilitate the growth of participatory democracy” [to include Participatory Budgeting, Gender-Sensitive Budgeting, Human Rights Education and Promotion for city employees, a Human Rights Charter, Expanding Public Transportation, Solar and Wind-Powered Generators, and a “South-South Trading Network and Free Trade Zone” to partner with the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) — ed.]
Chokwe Lumumba is a candidate for mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. He has served as an independent City Council member in that city. He was interviewed for Against the Current by Robert Caldwell, who began by asking Lumumba to explain his political activist background in both the North and South.
Chokwe Lumumba speaks to the media before a demonstration to free the Scott sisters, whom he also represented in court.
Chokwe Lumumba: I’m one of eight children from a working-class family in Detroit. My mother and father supported participants in the Selma-Montgomery March and other civil rights actions. They helped raise money and had guests at our home who came to visit and speak in the Detroit area. My mother’s side of the family originally comes from Alabama, so they were very familiar with conditions in the South and they made me very familiar with it.
I went to Kalamazoo College where I became part of the Black Student Movement.
Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, 1968. The day after, I joined with the Black Action Movement at Western Michigan University, which is right across the street from Kalamazoo College. Then we formed, at Kalamazoo College, a Black Student Organization. So we were part of the Student Movement when there was a whole lot of youth organizing across the Midwest. Shortly afterward I became part of what I consider to be a self-determination movement for our people. I worked in the provisional government of the Republic of New Afrika from about 1969 until sometime about ’84.
I have also been a leader in the National Black Human Rights Coalition, which is part of the human rights movement. We marched on the UN under the leadership of Queen Mother Moore and some others in 1978 or ’79. I’ve been very active on a community level, particularly around youth, organizing anti-crime patrols, fighting against police brutality, marching against the KKK. This has been my activist work.
Since it was formed in 1984 I’ve been a member of the New Afrikan People’s Organization. That organization launched the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) in 1990, and I’ve been a member of it too.
I’m a human rights attorney and I have fought for many political prisoners all over the country, working for people who have been caught up in racial or political prosecutions. Some of the people I’ve defended include Assata Shakur. I represented one of the brothers arrested after the rebellion in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles. I also represented Bilal Sunni Ali and Fulani Sunni Ali, who were accused of being involved in the Brinks case as well as Mutulu Shakur from the Brinks case. I represented Tupac Shakur for three years.
I’ve handled a host of successful cases that are significant because of the history of racial conflict and white supremacy here in Mississippi and Alabama.
One was the case of a young man accused of killing a white man who had beaten and pistol-whipped him. In other words, the white man had pistol-whipped the young Black fellow, but when the Black fellow defended himself and killed the white man, then he was tried for murder.
In another case I represented a young Black fellow who was possibly the youngest person in Mississippi ever to be charged with capital murder; he was 13 years old at the time. I also represent people not only in criminal cases, but in fighting against job discrimination, such as at Frito Lay, and sexual harassment cases as well.
ATC: How did your background in the movement for all these years lead to your successful election to the Jackson City Council? Is that part of a movement strategy?
CL: That’s a two-part question. Number one is why would I run and how does that relate to the folks I work with — particularly MXGM — deciding that we should run somebody for the City Council.
Should we run? We didn’t want to give credence to an oppressive system… But we’re in a city that’s 85% Black, in a county that’s 70% Black, and in a region where 17 of the 18 counties are predominantly Black.
So we adjusted our strategy to account for the fact that people with whom we are organizing in good faith, to fight against the conditions that they are experiencing, should be entitled to put people in office and expect them to do what they wanted them to do.
We decided it was important that we run for seats, and pick those where there was a high probability we could win. So we ran for the City Council.
I think we got elected because people had an experience with us. Over 20-25 years we have been in this community fighting against various injustices. We’ve always done this in coalition with others — never just by ourselves. We were never interested in sole credit. So we developed trust over the years.
Now when I landed in Mississippi there was one Black on the police force, and he could only arrest Black people. Police brutality was rampant. Actually there were COINTELPRO [a notorious FBI program to infiltrate Black, antiwar and other opposition organizations — ed.] and Red Squad [local police — ed.] operations trying to destroy the Black movement. Our opposition to that behavior helped get a police department that today is largely Black. We created the momentum that eventually elected the city’s first Black mayor. We were very much involved in a recent campaign to elect the first Black sheriff.
Photo copyright Jacob D. Fuller, Jackson Free Press
The Jackson-Kush Plan
ATC: Could you speak about how this growing electoral work and your campaign for mayor is part of an overall strategy?
CL: Our plan is essentially a self-determination tactic and strategy for African people in America, particularly and specifically in the areas which are affected by the plan. We call it the Jackson-Kush Plan, because Jackson is the city that we’re in and where we are running for mayor in May 2013, while the western part of Mississippi is the Kush District. [The Jackson-Kush Plan can be found online here — ed.]
From Tunica, which is in the northwest part of Mississippi, all the way down to Wilkerson County in the southwest, are 18 contiguous counties. All are predominantly Black, with the exception of Warren County which is 47% Black.
We’re fighting for the self-determination of that region. This type of self-determination is strategically or tactically tied to enhancing other fights of self-determination in other areas of the South.
We’ve often heard of the Black Belt South [the historic term of reference to agricultural regions in the Deep South with majority Black population — ed.], but hopefully self-determination is not only in the South. It will inspire movements of self-determination intelligently laid in other parts of the country.
ATC: Have you developed particular forms for expressing self-determination?
CL: We have created a People’s Assembly (PA) as part of our strategy in organizing our movement. The People’s Assembly is open to the people in the area. At first we held a PA in Ward 2 because I’m the Councilman of Ward 2. Now we’re expanding it to cover the whole city of Jackson.
People can voice their complaints but more importantly, try to take control over planning for city government. This can be a base for organizing. We want it to become an alternative source of governing. What we’re doing is building an infrastructure for a liberated people.
ATC: If successful, what you are reaching for is an assembly that could use its organizing base regardless of who is in electoral power?
CL: Yeah, that’s an extremely important point because having me in the Council seat does not ensure that people have control over the City of Jackson. Having me in the mayor’s seat wouldn’t ensure that our people have control over the City of Jackson.
When I say our people, I’m talking about Black people, but more. Hispanic people and even white people have a right to have more of a voice in their city than they do. We have to see that he who controls the purse strings often controls politics. A system that is built on white supremacy, a system which is based upon capitalist exploitation, is not a system which is gonna save people.
At this point, it’s extremely important that we have an alternative form of decision making for our people. Ultimately, the system is an alternative system. Whether it happens by some kind of conversion of the City Council and the mayor of Jackson or whether it happens independently, it’s the People’s Assembly that could save us.
The People’s Assembly can reflect the objectives and aspirations of a people. It embodies an alternative, but it’s a small alternative. Of course this tool will have to take on the City of Jackson, the county, the state, the federal government.
ATC: How did the idea of the People’s Assembly came about? What are the antecedents?
CL: There are several antecedents to the People’s Assembly, but the most important came out of the 2005 Katrina movement. When Hurricane Katrina occurred, it destroyed the infrastructure of people on the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular. We called for a Survivors’ Assembly, which got to be known as the People’s Assembly.
We gathered survivors from Katrina all over and held a meeting in Jackson. We organized it in Jackson because although it was affected by Katrina, it wasn’t as devastated as the Gulf Coast, and 600-700 survivors showed up.
We then proceeded to New Orleans, where we had about 5,000 or 10,000 people. Five thousand marched to demand that survivors be able to take control over city government in New Orleans. Through the struggles of Katrina, which went on for several years, we realized that this effort and this way of assembling and providing people with the space to speak was powerful. We didn’t have to haul in the big-time names to speak. One of the basic principles of the People’s Assembly is that the people must speak.
We then adapted that method for use in the Jackson area itself. We said “Look, we’ve done it with survivors, let’s make a People’s Assembly specifically for Jackson. Let’s gear it toward a bigger effort — exercising some control of the region.”
ATC: Earlier we talked about how your election to City Council and now your mayoral run is possible because of the results of movement building. Is this campaign itself being framed as a movement-building effort? What is the relationship of the campaign building toward what the Jackson-Kush Plan talks about, an independent Black electoral formation, perhaps even an eventual independent Black political party?
CL: The campaign depends upon the support of the people. But we’re not saying that in order to vote for Chokwe you have to believe in an independent party. Instead we say that in order to vote for Chokwe, you should believe that we’re moving toward a form of independence from the kind of oppressive things that we’ve had in the past; we’re moving toward a people’s form of government.
Of course we do have to confront this question of what’s going to be an independent political party. What do we want to do to rescue us from the parties that currently exist and the malfeasance which they have toward our people?
That is a discussion particularly for campaign workers and those who get very close to the campaign. We do make reference, however — and this is important to note — to the Freedom Democratic Party of Fannie Lou Hamer. That’s what I’m a member of. We do raise the idea that when the system is not giving you what you need, you have to break loose like Fannie Lou and seek something different. But that’s where we are in talking about an independent political party with other relevant organizations working on the campaign.
One other observation: In Mississippi you also have to look very carefully at what can be done to seize hold of the Democratic Party here and see if it can be turned into something. In Mississippi the Democratic Party is probably 80% Black already. It also has been very much affected by Fannie Lou Hamer’s movement. It’s totally independent from the reactionary politics that the Democratic Party pursues on the national level.
Fannie Lou Hamer, organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, speaks before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, August 22, 1964.
However there’s two things that are important.
When Fannie Lou Hamer came on the scene, there were no seats for Black delegates. When they challenged the Democratic Party here, they forced it to have 50% Black and 50% white, 50% women and 50% men. Right now, Black delegates represent 80% of the party.
The structure of the party is very weak. If a progressive movement wanted to take hold of the structure, and they felt that that was the best move, I think that’s an important consideration. In order to run as a candidate in the Democratic Party in Mississippi, there is no litmus test.
So understanding the need for a strong party, do we want to seize hold of the Democratic Party and convert that into what we need or do we want to build something totally independent? If we decide to build it independently, then the People’s Assembly also exists as the ground floor for that movement. So we have some options. We need to consider those and we understand that as workers in the movement, we don’t make those decisions independently of the people.
You really do have to take a look at the folks that are involved here on the ground. Where we think that the people are slow, often they’re ahead of us. We have to realize that Mississippi has more Black political officials than any other place in the country. And that has involved a fight against racists.
All I’m saying is that building an independent political party is something that we, as an organization, feel is important and has to happen. But we cannot come in and declare an independent political party for the people. We have to declare an independent political party with the people.
ATC: What are the most critical issues confronting the African community in Jackson? If elected mayor, how would you attack the problems? How much power do you think you would have? What would be your objective limitations?
CL: We’re 85% of the population in Jackson — and this is characteristic of the whole state of Mississippi — but we only own 15% of the businesses. This defines the rest of our reality. The white elites call the shots; they define where the resources go. Their economic strategy is to gentrify the city, not empower people.
This map outlines the Kush district in the Republic of New Afrika (RNA). The RNA was an organization that formed in the late 1960’s to establish a free nation-state of Black people from U.S. states and counties with sizable Black populations.
ATC: Does this strategy also include the Black corporate elite?
CL: Yeah, these are the ones who feel that, for some reason, they’re gonna be included in the gentrification. They don’t feel they will be disregarded. They usually have a close relationship with the gentrifying forces.
The level of conversation around gentrification has not manifested itself as acutely as in Detroit, but the tension is there. White flight is still continuing at this point. There are forces definitely trying to do their best to run Black people out of the city.
We have to find a material base in order to reverse dependency. Where we can get a hold on the governmental apparatus, we can use it reverse this trend. Infrastructure becomes critically important: We have to make sure that we use the resources we have, with more emphasis on repairing infrastructure.
We need to make sure that the businesses we repair reflect some of our economic goals. We’re not looking for big-time manufacturers from other parts to come in and bring 85% of their workers from somewhere else. When they leave work at the end of the day, you know, the money walks out with them.
We have to look at cooperatives and the gardening movement. We have to look at the healthy food movement. We’ve really got to look at who we hire to do things, to pave roads, to straighten out the drainage, to fix bridges and the other infrastructure which is in bad shape in Jackson, just as it is in virtually in every city in the country.
What we have to do is to put more money into the hands of the working class who live in the city. This will give them more power to determine what businesses will exist in Jackson. That’s a material way to complement our political objectives.
ATC: The editors understand from speaking with Bill Chandler from MIRA (Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance) and others, that the political balance in Mississippi is shifting, as you said, but that voter suppression and bureaucratic obstacles to voting have been a serious problem as recently as the last election. [See “Voter Suppression Hits Mississippi” by Bill Chandler in ATC 163] How do you see voter suppression playing out in Jackson?
CL: This is probably less of a problem in the Jackson election, the mayor’s election, than it will be as we expand into other parts of the Kush District and other parts of the state. Generally speaking, in Jackson and in much of the Kush District it is difficult to really make much of a difference in local elections where 85% of the voters are Black. But our objectives are not limited to Jackson. Our objectives are not even limited to the Kush District.
Ultimately we’re talking about expanding self-determination, expanding human rights. We’re talking about expanding socially and economically just systems throughout the state. And when you talk that talk, then voter suppression becomes a very real response.
I think Bill Chandler and MIRA have been involved on the state level. In the last election a Black brother from Hattiesburg ran for governor. Mechanisms of voter suppression were used to defeat him.
Any kind of statewide office that you run for, those things will be very much involved, the larger the Black and Latino population gets to be. There is a natural coalition between these populations. In addition there are not a great number of Asians, but you have some.
There is also a whole new group of whites coming into the city. They are coming to work at various educational institutions and they are an important addition. Today you have more than just the Black schools here in Mississippi. You have Millsaps College, Bellhaven College in Jackson itself, and then some other schools outside Jackson.
Today there is a medical corporate structure that controls the city. And there’s an expansion of hospitals and medical centers. It’s happening all over the country as well, but with a bigger impact in Mississippi and in Jackson because of our economy. We have to reach the young people who are coming here to work. We have to show them enlightened forms of politics and economics so they won’t be subservient to the corporate structure. We have to see whom we can mobilize and organize from a human rights point of view, from the point of view of supporting the self-determination of oppressed people.
Some of these folks are pretty young — they will be a little more sensitive to what we’re talking about and a little more reachable than some of the folks who may have grown up here. The problem we have with folks that grow up here, even though there are some good people, is that there is a pervasive culture of white supremacy. Some have risen above it while others have altered its forms. But it’s still a reality, a very strong reality.
When Obama ran for president in 2007-08, you could predict the vote on the basis of the Black or white population of the county. If Obama got 40% of the vote, you were in a county where Blacks were 40% of the population. If Obama got 50% or more, you were in a majority Black county. If he got less than 50%, you were in a majority white county.
Even though Mr. Obama has a lot of problems, the reason why most of these white folks were objecting to him had nothing to do with the reasons why we object.
Empowerment North and South
ATC: Although you’ve lived in Jackson for quite some time, previously you were active in Detroit. What observations might you make about the struggle for social justice and especially for Black political empowerment North and South?
CL: The biggest parallel is the fact that both struggles for self-determination galvanized the Black population to fight for electoral offices. In the City of Detroit there was a great deal of success. In an 85% Black city, the City Council, the Mayor’s Office, the School Board all became predominantly if not all Black.
That was true even of the judgeships in Detroit at one point — until the state decided to take over Detroit’s own Recorder’s Court and merge it into the county system, thereby diluting Black strength. But before that happened, 25 out of the 30 judges in Detroit were Black, which certainly had great impact.
Something similar is happening in Jackson and other counties in Mississippi that are predominantly Black. The difference, I believe, is that in Mississippi there are so many contiguous Black-majority counties that you have more of a material base to change economic dependency into some independent and cooperative effort.
That’s a critical difference. In the City of Detroit, as they say, once you’ve passed Eight Mile Road (the city boundary) you were in a different kind of place, with a different population. Even in Detroit, you had a place that was totally controlled by the automobile manufacturers. What ultimately happened in Detroit had a whole lot to do with the way that those businesses operated.
I think the same thing is true in Mississippi in terms of the big businesses located here. However, I think that there’s more of an alternative in Mississippi in that there’s more space to develop something else, a larger landmass and a larger population too.
I might also add that here in the South we’re also very close to South America, to many nations which themselves are predominantly Black or have a large Indian population. They are a population formerly oppressed, and still facing oppression. We expect that the progressive movements from those countries will assist us, will move us in the right direction. I think that’s important.
ATC: How can people find out more about your campaign, about the plan, about the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement?
CL: I want people to become part of this campaign, if they can, from where they are. We don’t expect to be the people with the most money in this campaign. We are the people who are gonna do the most work — but money will help make sure that we get out our campaign ads, and that will help us get the votes we need.
You go to our website and read the People’s Platform. You can become much more informed about what the campaign is really about. I think we’re the only one here with a platform that we’ve published, which is on the website and is called the People’s Platform.
You may want to come down and help us on Election Day or before Election Day. We hit the streets every week and often during the week.
ATC: When is Election Day?
CL: Election Day is May 7, 2013. We want to get as many of you down as we possibly can. We invite your support, and hope and pray that you will give it to us.
Contributions to the Committee to Elect Chokwe Lumumba can be sent to Committee to Elect Chokwe Lumumba at 440 North Mill Street, Jackson, Mississippi 39202. Or visit the website: ElectLumumbaMayor.com. You can make a contribution by using the PayPal button on the website. You can contact our campaign office at 601-353-5566.
This interview will appear in the May/June 2013 Against the Current #164.