Down in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, there is one refrain the people all know and recite: “At least this is not Mississippi.” Troubadour Nina Simone even composed an anthem about the place during the civil rights era that is better known than any other song: “Mississippi Goddamn!”
But ironically, Mississippi — despite its reputation as the dwelling place for all manner of foul birds and knuckle-dragging cavemen — is the state in the U.S. that, hands down, has the highest number of black elected officials in the country, and may be the only U.S. state close to a majority black population, at roughly 40 percent.
In 2013, the people of Jackson — the state capital — elected the “most revolutionary mayor in America.” His name was Chokwe Lumumba, and black militants who knew him from his days as vice president of the Republic of New Africa and as founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement cheered his victory out loud. For good reason.
“We have 18 counties on the Western part of Mississippi, starting from Tunica in the North, not far from Memphis, going all the way down the Western side of the state to the Southwest, to Wilkinson County which is the last county in the Southwest — 18 contiguous counties, 17 of them are majority black,” the late mayor Lumumba told me in an interview in 2013, shortly after his election.
“Some of [the counties] are as much as 80 percent black. So, demographically we have a solid, a non-self-governing territory. What we need to do in that area,” he continued, is to “now give that [area] some political content, some direction in terms of what we want to do in terms of taking these electoral victories, these economic victories and teach the message that we know from long ago, of self-determination, of self-governance, self-economic development,” he continued concerning the area he referred to as the “Kush District.”
“Yes!” I cheered in agreement.
It’s as though the seeds of a “Black Nation” had begun to take root there. Then, after less than one year in office, Chokwe Lumumba died suddenly, at age 66. His 30-year-old son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, sought to finish the unexpired portion of his father’s term and was defeated soundly at the polls. The “revolution” had been halted.
But in a Democratic Party primary election in Jackson on May 2, “the movement” took on new life, when the younger Lumumba swept to victory on that level, which virtually assures that he will be the winner in the June 6 general election.
The younger Lumumba is really a reflection of the radical politics of both of his parents.
“Being described as an activist is probably the most welcomed and appreciated label that people provide to me,” Chokwe Anta Lumumba told me shortly after his primary election victory. “I’m the child of two activists. I like to consider myself a child of the movement.
“My parents [father and mother Nubia Lumumba] believed that they could not shield my sister and I from the work that they were committed to,” he said. “They felt that giving us the movement was as important as giving us food shelter and water and education. So, I’m grateful for that.”
His policies and platform reflect his upbringing. Lumumba supports “economic democracy,” and he has proposed a civic “incubator fund” to support cooperative, member-owned businesses among poor blacks, transforming them and their communities from places of squalor to decent places to live.
“My earliest memories are at the Malcolm X Center that we had in here in Jackson, on the corner of Martin Luther King and Randall Street, where we had political education, we had day camps for children, we had martial arts training, we had basketball programs, we had reading, writing and arithmetic going on,” Lumumba said.
Lumumba’s pending mayoral victory is “an inter-generational, political victory,” Dr. Ray Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, told me in an interview after the primary.
“And we see this in the Kennedys,” Winbush said. “We see this even going back to John Adams, or the Taft family, or the Roosevelt family, but it’s been strangely absent in the history of African Americans, except in some cases. So, I think his victory shows us the importance of teaching inter-generational politics to our children.”
“Mississippi is pregnant — like Jackson — pregnant with possibility,” Lumumba told me. “And so, being viewed as an activist has symbolized something different with me. One thing I admired most about my father — and I intend to hold the same principles — is that he never abandoned his ideology. He never abandoned his principles and beliefs. He was as committed the day he died for fighting for self-determination for people as he was throughout his life.”
That’s music to my ears, Nina Simone.