The Saga of a City Rising

Michael Friedman

Jackson Rising:
The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi
By Ajamu Nangwaya and Kali Akuno
Cooperation Jackson, Daraja Press, 2017, 312 pages, $29.99 paperback.

THERE HAS BEEN much interest among those who advocate for worker ownership and economic democracy in the organizing struggles that were undertaken in Jackson, Mississippi and led to the election of Chokwe Lumumba as Mayor of Jackson on June 4, 2013.

Building on years of grassroots organizing and running on a well thought-out program of cooperative economic development and participatory political action, known as the Jackson-Kush Plan,(1) this successful campaign to win office in a hardcore deep South city — Mississippi’s capital and the largest city in the state — appeared to augur the launching of a significant program that saw economic democracy as an essential component of the liberation struggle of the Black poor and working class.

Only some eight months after his election, Chokwe Lumumba’s untimely death on February 14, 2014 heightened concerns that the comprehensive platform for change that he had run on would get derailed and possibly be destroyed. Such fears were exacerbated by the defeat of his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who ran to replace him, by a Black council member put up by conservative white Jackson business interests.

Chokwe Antar ran again for mayor in 2016, got more votes than his father had, won the primary by 55% and the general election by an overwhelming 93%, and was installed as Jackson’s mayor July 3, 2017.

Chokwe Lumumba’s program of economic development and political action, the Jackson-Kush Plan — and why it was not derailed by this string of events that would have been enough to undermine many other Black Liberation political struggles — is the focus of Jackson Rising.

A key indicator that this political movement and struggle did not die with Chokwe Lumumba was the Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference held at Jackson State University on May 2-4, 2014, a few months after Chokwe’s death, which attracted over 500 attendees. The papers presented at that conference form a substantial part of this book.

Jackson Rising is a collection of 24 essays by 23 contributors that address various elements of the plan, many of the practical initiatives undertaken by those organizing around it, the history of the organizing that preceded its development, the strategies and tactics of Chokwe Lumumba’s campaign, and an assessment of the impact and consequences of these efforts.

In her Foreword, Chokwe’s daughter Rukia Lumumba provides a shorthand version of what the book is doing: “Jackson Rising documents the history and intersectionality of the Cooperative Movement and the Mississippi Freedom Movement.”

Build and Fight

These essays provide both the historical and current context in which the principles and programs of the Jackson-Kush Plan were developed, and also carefully detail the conceptual underpinnings and practical implementations of the initiatives undertaken in carrying it out.

This review cannot do justice to the writers’ detailed discussion of how the various elements of the Jackson-Kush Plan have been carried out and adjustments made in light of the difficulties and obstacles encountered.

With so many essays, there is some repetition of facts and stories. Some essays are very brief, others more extensive.

While the quality of the essays is very high throughout,  if one only had time to read some of them, I would recommend as must-reads two essays that bookend the contents by Kali Akuno, a long-standing comrade, supporter and activist who worked with Chokwe Lumumba for many years and was a key architect of the plan.

These are: “Build and Fight: The Program and Strategy of Cooperation Jackson” and “Casting Shadows: Chokwe Lumumba and the Struggle for Racial Justice and Economic Democracy in Jackson, Mississippi.”

There are a number of key takeaways. First, and perhaps the most significant, is that Chokwe Lumumba’s election success was not based simply on a political campaign for office, but on decades of organizing in Jackson’s Black community and the counties that made up the Kush District.

Chokwe Lumumba, born and raised in Detroit, first moved to Mississippi in March 1971, when he was 23 years old and taking a break from his second year at Wayne State Law School.

He went to Mississippi to work with the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa (PGRNA) in its efforts to found the new community of El Hajj Malik (based on the name Malcolm X had chosen for himself, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz).

The PGRNA was intending to acquire land by accessing funds authorized by Congress under the New Communities Act, and to build a community with no discrimination based on color, class, gender, or physical disability. The PGRNA purchased 20 acres from a Black farmer about 20 miles outside of Jackson and had contracted with a builder to build a school and dining hall on the property.

On the day the group and its supporters chose to inaugurate the site, which date they called “Land Celebration Day,” they were met by an armed phalanx of Klansmen, and state, local and federal police.

Despite this intimidating barricade, the group and its supporters managed to walk the last five miles to the site and inaugurate their project.

Their success, however, was ephemeral as the Black farmer was pressured to rescind the sale, and the local and state authorities were unrelenting in their efforts to undermine this work. The effort by the PGRNA to create this ideal community in Mississippi came to an end.

After this defeat, Lumumba returned to Detroit to finish his law degree and embark on a successful career as a lawyer. While in Detroit, he cofounded two organizations that intended to carry out the work of the PGRNA — the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO) and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM).

He moved back to Jackson with his family in 1988, where he worked as a civil rights lawyer and a political activist in these groups to develop a strategy for building Black political and economic power in Jackson.

Indeed, the Jackson-Kush Plan was developed by NAPO and MXGM between 2004 and 2010, well before any mayoral campaign was on the horizon.(2)

Cooperation Jackson

Kali Akuno explains that the purpose of the Plan was “to advance the New Afrikan Peoples Movement and hasten the socialist transformation of the territories currently claimed by the United States settler colonial state. . .

“Cooperation Jackson(3) is a vehicle specifically created to advance a key component of the Jackson-Kush Plan, namely the development of a solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi to advance the struggle for economic democracy as a prelude towards the democratic transition to eco-socialism.”

As Akuno explains it, the Jackson-Kush Plan had three fundamental programmatic foci that had the aim of “build[ing] a mass base with political clarity, organizational capacity and material self-sufficiency.”

People’s Assemblies: Build People’s Assemblies throughout the Kush District. These assemblies were conceived of as (i) “mass” gatherings — mass meaning that the body engaged at least one-fifth of the population in a given geographic area, (ii) addressing meaningful social issues in a way that provided solutions, not just giving voice to those assembled, and (iii) operating on a “one person, one vote” principle.

Independent Politics: Build an independent political force throughout the state, but concentrated in the Kush District to challenge the two capitalist parties through a network of progressive candidates. Key is grassroots organizing and alliance-building, based on an extensive campaign of education around fundamental issues.

Solidarity Economy: Build a “solidarity economy” in Jackson and the Kush District anchored by a network of cooperatives and supporting institutions to strengthen worker power and economic democracy. This network consists of (i) build worker, consumer and housing cooperatives and credit unions, built up through a Take Back the Land initiative that sought to occupy abandoned lands and buildings and repurpose them towards socially productive uses; (ii) create economically sustainable, i.e.  green enterprises; (iii) develop community and conservation land trusts; and (iv) develop an adequate publicly financed infrastructure to support these development strategies.

What Akuno means by “solidarity economy” is a concept that “describes a process of promoting cooperative economics that promote social solidarity, mutual aid, reciprocity and generosity.” It is a concept he readily credits as being inspired by the cooperative networks in Mondragon, Spain that successfully combined cooperative economic development with a movement for self-determination and sovereignty.

With the death of Chokwe Lumumba and the defeat of Chokwe Antar’s initial mayoral run, the focus of the Jackson-Kush Plan was (i) the development of private cooperative economic institutions under the Cooperation Jackson plank of the Plan, and (ii) the ongoing development of People’s Assemblies, both to articulate the issues that mattered most to the citizens of Jackson and the Kush District and to continue their education and training in participatory democracy, political self-determination and grassroots self-organization.

A Constant Struggle

The second key takeaway from the book is that while the success of the movement’s goals cannot be achieved without a sustainable economic base, developing the solidarity economy envisioned by the Jackson-Kush Plan will not be enough.

Essential to success is both the ability of people to actively participate in the political direction of the city, state and country, but to do so on an informed, confident and self-directed basis. In short, worker-ownership with the ability to participate in and direct the enterprises where folks are employed is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for achieving the kind of self-direction from below that will ensure political as well as economic democracy.

The strength of the Jackson-Kush Plan is that from the first it saw its economic platform based on a vision of the solidarity economy, and its political platform based on a specific conception of building people’s assemblies, understanding that the success of each is absolutely integral to the success of both, and together provide the basis for meaningful victory in the electoral arena.

The third key takeaway is that the story told in Jackson Rising reinforces in a dramatic way the old movement slogan that “freedom is a constant struggle.”

There is no resting on any achieved laurels. Success only lays the groundwork for further advances. Failures create the opportunity to avoid making the same mistakes, thus clearing the ground for clearly envisioning and taking the next steps forward.

The ability of the Jackson-Kush movement to continue rising following the death of Chokwe Lumumba and Antar’s initial mayoral defeat is testimony to the strength of the values of this movement, its organizational integrity and the clarity of its analysis.

It is too soon to adequately assess the progress that has been made and might come in the future from Chokwe Antar’s subsequent successful election as Jackson’s mayor. We do know that the powers that oppose this movement have had time to respond, and with a better understanding of its goals and tactics, to build counter-measures designed to derail and destroy it.

In her foreword Rukia Lumumba notes five specific initiatives by Mississippi’s legislature that have been introduced, and two executive actions taken by its governor.

Perhaps the most significant of the legislative actions is the effort to move control of Jackson’s airport, and the revenue derived from operating it, from the city to the county, significantly reducing the revenues available to carry out the Jackson-Kush Plan.

Along the same lines is the bill introduced to redirect the 1% sales tax increase, passed by Chokwe to fund the city’s compliance with an EPA-required water/sewage system improvement mandate,(4) from the city to the state treasury.

There has also been introduced what we might think of as more traditional Mississippi legislation, designed to (i) give police broader powers to stop and search people of color, and (ii) openly permit discrimination against members of the LGBTI community for religious reasons.

To add insult to injury, Rukia points out, the governor recently established April as Confederate Heritage month in Mississippi.

In bringing together these extensive essays, Jackson Rising provides a detailed discussion of this most important social achievement in the struggles for Black Liberation and economic democracy.

The extensive theoretical work that has gone into the Plan, and especially its implementation challenges and successes, are of the greatest value to all those involved in working towards economic democracy and political self-determination.

For any of us involved in such work, it is a must-read.

Notes

  1. The “Kush” in the Jackson-Kush Plan refers to the 18 contiguous counties in Mississippi that run along the Mississippi River on the state’s western border, 17 of which are majority Black and the 18th is nearly so. The Malcolm X Grass Roots Movement (MXGM) called these counties the “Kush District,” after the generic name given to the collection of agricultural communities that bordered the Nile River in what is now Egypt and Sudan.
    back to text
  2. For the full text of the Jackson-Kush Plan go to: http://navigatingthestorm.blogspot.com/2012/05/the-jackson-kush-plan-and-struggle-for.html
    back to text
  3. “Cooperation Jackson” is the name used to describe the cooperative economic development programs of the Jackson-Kush Plan.
    back to text
  4. The EPA action pre-dated Chokwe Lumumba’s election, but nevertheless committed the city to a 17-year investment in water and sewage infrastructure that ran into many millions of dollars. Chokwe’s ability to get passage of a 1% sales tax to fund this required expenditure was seen as reflecting the depth of his support in Jackson. Depriving the city of these funds is clearly intended to undermine Chokwe Antar’s ability to meet this obligation and other initiatives proposed in the Jackson-Kush Plan, thereby laying the groundwork for a campaign to defeat his efforts to get re-elected.
    back to text

November-December 2018, ATC 197