Sunday, March 09, 2014

Jackson Mourns Mayor Chokwe Lumumba

Jackson Mourns Mayor With Militant Past Who Won Over Skeptics

MARCH 9, 2014
The New York Times

JACKSON, Miss. — Many people here still do not entirely know what to make of the mayor with the unusual name and even more unexpected résumé, who proudly embraced the term “militant” and to many was still the same dashiki-wearing firebrand who first came to prominence advocating an independent black nation in the South in the early 1970s.

But when Jackson said goodbye to Mayor Chokwe Lumumba this weekend, blacks and whites, for a change, largely united in mourning an unlikely experiment that ended when he died last month, apparently of a heart attack, at age 66, after only eight months in office.

To many in the capital’s black majority, the mayor was still the passionate advocate for black causes who over a 40-year career represented the rapper Tupac Shakur and pressed the state to retry the killer of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers. To the white business establishment, he had evolved into a surprisingly pragmatic politician who promised to fix the potholes and the sewers.

“It was very much like Nixon to China,” said Leland Speed, 81, the chairman of the EastGroup Properties real estate investment firm, who admits he did not vote for Mr. Lumumba. “The expectations when he was elected were not very high, and he surprised everybody pretty dramatically.”

What is no longer much debated here, from the tumbledown shacks in Jackson’s hollowed core to the colonnaded mansions and gated communities in the largely white northeast, is the sense that Mr. Lumumba was moving a city ravaged by decades of poverty, crime and white flight in the right direction. What is less clear in this city of half a million, the state’s largest, is what comes next.

Mr. Lumumba first arrived in Jackson in 1971 as a leader of the Republic of New Afrika, the 1960s-vintage liberation movement that called for billions in reparations payments to blacks and an independent black-majority nation in what are now the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Two years earlier, the Detroit native had changed his name from Edwin Taliaferro to Chokwe (pronounced SHOW-kway), for an African tribe that resisted slavery, and Lumumba, for Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader who was ousted and executed in 1961 by C.I.A.-backed forces.

While the candidates in last spring’s mayoral primary initially focused on Jackson’s daunting problems, chiefly soaring violent crime and crumbling infrastructure, Mr. Lumumba’s radical past quickly became an issue. A video surfaced of a speech he made in 2009 describing his election to City Council that year as part of the process of “seizing power from the ground up.”

The video proved, as one north-side resident put it in a local weekly, that Mr. Lumumba was “still a paranoid radical who hates America.”

Mr. Lumumba dismissed the jibe. “I feel kind of comfortable being militant,” he told reporters. “Fannie Lou Hamer was a militant. Medgar Evers was a militant. Martin Luther King was a militant. In pursuit of good interests, there is nothing wrong with it.”

He finished second in the primary and handily won a runoff, despite losing badly in predominantly white precincts. Within city limits, Jackson is 80 percent black. At his inauguration last June, Mr. Lumumba called for unity, then raised his fist and shouted the New Afrika slogan, “Free the land!”

“Suburbs freak out,” was the headline in one newspaper.

But if Mr. Lumumba still harbored radical ambitions, Jackson had more pressing problems: dilapidated buildings, abandoned lots, a rising murder rate, a quarter of the city living in poverty and an estimated $2 billion in urgent infrastructure repairs that was needed.

He increased water and sewer rates and began a push for a 1 percent sales tax increase for infrastructure, selling the plan in town halls across the city.

Many white Jacksonians cite the meeting at Christ United Methodist Church, in the heart of the white community, as pivotal.

“They expected this radical and they went to the town meeting and what they found was a grandfather,” said Todd Allen, 50, a college recruiter who was mourning the mayor’s loss over a Southern Pecan ale at a downtown bistro.

“I’m upset that he’s gone because I really believed in him,” he added. “That man had some chutzpah.”

The sales tax passed with a staggering 90 percent of the vote.

Reporters often noted that the mayor was disarmingly soft-spoken. Former Governor Haley Barbour, a Republican, described him as “gracious.”

Former Gov. William Winter, a Democrat, admitted he misjudged him. “I was afraid that he would divide our city,” Mr. Winter said at the funeral on Saturday. “I could not have been more wrong.”

Yet the mayor never renounced his black nationalist ideals, an incongruity on display at the memorial services over the weekend.

At City Hall on Friday, Coltrane Chimurenga of the militant Dec. 12 movement, in long dreadlocks, black leather coat and dark glasses, ended his speech shouting “Freedom or death!”

Mr. Lumumba’s son and political heir apparent, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, 31, delivered a barn-burning eulogy, closing with a raised fist and shouts of “Free the land! Free the land! By any means necessary!”

At the cemetery later, the entrance was flanked by two hook and ladder trucks, ladders extended in an arc. A giant American flag was draped from one, the red, black and green of the New Afrika movement from the other.

It may be the ultimate irony of Mr. Lumumba’s life that his most significant concrete achievement as mayor was the passage of a regressive tax to fix potholes.

“He has a place he wanted to go and he wanted to fly there on a plane,” his policy director, Walter Zinn, said in an interview. “But there was no plane, just a bus, and the bus don’t work. The tragedy is, he died fixing the bus.”

On Feb. 25, Mr. Lumumba went to a Jackson hospital complaining of chest pains. That afternoon he was dead.

Few were shocked in this land walked by the ghosts of civil rights martyrs that a few days later the county supervisor, Kenneth Stokes, would blurt out on television: “Who killed the mayor?”

The coroner ruled that Mr. Lumumba had died of “natural causes” and no evidence has emerged to the contrary.

A special election is set for April 8, and the margin of the referendum vote suggests that a majority wants to continue down the path set by Mr. Lumumba, even if its final destination remains an enigma.

A campaign has arisen to draft his son, a criminal defense lawyer in his father’s old firm. The younger Mr. Lumumba has not announced his intentions, though he may have hinted at them in his eulogy.

“Chokwe Lumumba lived in the people’s struggle and he will never die,” he said, his voice rising in powerful cadences like a country preacher. “My father lives in me.”

The crowd rose to its feet.

As for the father, while his dreams for Jackson and Mississippi remain a mystery, being the progressive black mayor of a black-majority Southern capital ultimately may not have been a far cry from the black self-determination he once sought.

On Friday night, long after the crowds had gone, an honor guard of the Jackson police, a department once rife with Klan members, carried the mayor’s body out of a City Hall that was built by slaves in 1846. His family and close aides watched silently under the towering Doric columns as Jackson’s radical mayor, wearing a gold and white dashiki, left City Hall for the last time.

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