On Tuesday, Chokwe Lumumba, a long-distance runner in human rights and Black Power lore and the Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, died suddenly. Like another beloved and transformational mayor of a generation ago, Chicago’s Harold Washington, Lumumba’s sorely-taxed heart failed. As was also the case with Washington, Chokwe’s death leaves us numb, hopes for progressive Black municipal politics robbed of another focusing champion. Some of our dampened eyes will no doubt turn with renewed vigor to Newark, where Amiri and Amina Baraka’s son Ras continues to gain momentum in his quest for a post-Corey Booker/post-“postracial” mayoralty. We will look to the movement he represents, perhaps, with a less wary sense of impending mortality, hoping that his relative youth will stay the bitter scythe that lay these more senior symbols of popular will low before their, and our, time.
Some who will not publically celebrate Lumumba’s passing will, in the ugly corners where they give voice to their deepest fears and hatreds, gratefully expect a return to more familiar power arrangement in Jackson. Let them be wary. When giants pass, sometimes apprentices, robbed of the luxury of time to be noncommittal or opaque, find purpose and emerge strengthened. Chokwe Lumumba was representative of one such recent moment in African-American history, when courage and youth met determination, talent and indignant defiant self-determination. That moment saw its own martyrs: the Mississippi-slain Emmett Till and Medgar Evers; Martin King, Malcolm X and others whose deaths catalyzed the emergence of a new generation of leaders with now iconic names: Stokely. Angela. Rap. Kathleen. Huey.
Lumumba, a contemporary and eventual comrade of the aforementioned generation of “Black Power” leaders, was born Edwin Taliaferro in Detroit, his mother Priscella's family having immigrated from what James Brown famously referred to as “LA—Lower Alabama.” He began “movement work” as a teenager and, like the others, saw his idealism sorely tested by the killings of Malcolm X and Martin King. Lumumba said that he had only come to the movement and stayed in it because of these two figures. When they were killed, he said, “then I became a leader.” Like Carmichael and LeRoi Jones, young Taliafero took a new name with connections to African culture and political struggle. His first name, Chokwe, came from a central African cultural group who resisted Portuguese colonialism well into the twentieth century; his last name came from one of the world’s most celebrated and mourned political figures, the first Prime Minister of independent Congo, the martyred Patrice Lumumba.
The day after King’s death (a man Lumumba said his mother thought was the “Black Moses”), Lumumba joined the movement to establish Black Studies programs, first at Western Michigan University and then at Kalamazoo College. Seven years later, he graduated, summa cum laude, from Wayne State University School of Law and began work that would make him one of the most well-known Black Power/Civil Rights lawyers in recent memory. His work as a crusading lawyer in Detroit and his efforts to create African-Centered schools and community organizations reached a historic watershed when he joined the celebrated Republic of New Afrika.
In his new book, America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community, American University Law Professor Robert Tsai chronicles the political and legal philosophy of the RNA, including its vision of a declaration of independence for the Black nation in the United States; a provisional government and people’s parliament for those living in the borders of “free national territories” in the U.S. south; the call and legal rationale for reparations for descendants of American enslavement; and the argument, using the U.S. Constitution’s so-called “Civil War Amendments,” for holding a plebiscite on the question of citizenship among Africans in the United States. Tsai argues that the RNA vision, far from impracticable, expanded and complicated the meaning of governance and law as set forth in the U.S. Constitution.
As a law student at Ohio State, I remember devoting considerable time to thinking through and debating the legal arguments and alternatives as presented by Lumumba, Obadele and the women and men of the RNA. The exercise allowed us to infuse our youthful enthusiasm and growing understanding of the relationship of language to power and institutions with a sense of purpose beyond mere survival and/or accommodation. Lumumba’s rationale for reparations made both moral and legal sense, and revealed the law for what it most often is: The instrument by which the few organize, access and control the many. Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia like to talk about the relationship of morality to concepts like natural law, but Chokwe Lumumba revealed how, through study and lived praxis, once-oppressed people can access, leverage and acquire power and make more inclusive, humane and socially effective law.
With this vision, and primarily because of his work with the RNA (and subsequently the New Afrikan People's Organization, or NAPO) , Lumumba would relocate to Jackson, Mississippi. He had been in Detroit in August, 1971 when Mississippi police attacked RNA members on a farm they had attempted to purchase in Jackson. Thanks to assistance from another Alabama to Detroit transplant, Rosa Parks, Lumumba worked with Michigan Congressman John Conyers to ensure that Imari Obadele and other leaders of the RNA in Mississippi were not killed in the wake of this state violence. Years later, Congressman Conyers would introduce HR 40, a bill to establish a commission to study reparations proposals for African Americans.
Lumumba would eventually move to Jackson, spending the rest of his life traveling the country and the globe confronting oppression in the courts, in the streets, and in elected office—first on the Jackson City Council and, in 2013, as Mayor of the city. He worked as attorney for Geronimo Pratt, Assata Shakur, Mutulu Shakur, “The Pontiac Sixteen,” and many others, including Tupac Shakur. He fought against capital punishment and won the release in Mississippi of Jamie and Gladys Scott from a wrongful armed robbery conviction in a celebrated 2011 case. He helped create and assist organizations that fostered intergenerational apprenticeship and movement activity, from the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America to the aforementioned NAPO and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement to the National Black United Front.
Lumumba died after having just won a hard-fought struggle to acquire levers of municipal power. We live in an era when scholars who, from Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley to Benjamin Barber, argue that interconnected cities are emerging as a model form of transnational governance. History will note that Chokwe joined the Ancestors just as the citizens of Jackson had begun “Freeing the Land,” even as Black students sit guard over the statue of James Meredith three hours away, at “Ole Miss.”
Therein lies the rhythm, the underlying fixed element in an otherwise variable dance of fate. Perhaps Gerald Horne is correct in calling the post 1960s generations of Black intellectuals largely “lost,” many looking for “postracial” explanations for indelible markers of racial oppression, and the precarious position of the Black “middle class” as some sign of “progress” or the realization of the dream of those who struggled for something very different two generations ago. The idea that “millennials,” born after the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, are not in tune to the dreams and aspirations of the masses of our people is belied by the evidence of Black students at Michigan, Dartmouth, UCLA, and elsewhere who struggle to connect, to understand, as Black enrollment at those and many other HWCUs decline. Individual progress, especially the illusory “gains” of the tottering Black middle class, has never meant group progress for African Americans, as Howard social scientists from Ralph Bunche, Franklin Frazier, Andrew Billingsley and Joyce Ladner to Bill Spriggs and Rodney Green have constantly reminded us.
A growing number of fertile minds, entranced by the echo chamber of a race angst-tinged academy and the lure of prophecy for hire, are working to interpret the era of “Black Power” as a phase in the accomplishment of “the American Dream.” This misuse of intellectual capital amounts to a unilateral declaration of surrender on their parts. When compared to the revolutionary, provocative, deeply considered and sharply contested ideas and actions of Chokwe Lumumba and the generation of workers he represented, the “vanguard” of subsequent generations appear to be populated by those who looked upon the face of state violence and blanched.
There are certainly understandable reasons for choosing the safety and comfort of Blackness as metaphor, multiculturalism as trope and neoliberal academia as shelter. COINTELPRO was and, in its new and improved manifestations, is real. The nominal rewards of political, bureaucratic and/or professional status and access are sometimes difficult to imagine living without or in perpetual fear of having them removed. And as for our students, well, we are encouraged to have them emulate these failed people, who have come to be celebrated as stylish, ultimately irrelevant frauds. They will not be counted among the surviving images of memory; and they do not care. They have their earthly reward.
Chokwe Lumumba was not elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi by himself. We progress, on all fronts, as a group, in tactical coalition with others of like mind and objective. We can only work with the hope that new voices will arise, perhaps shorn of the timidity, mediocrity, and willingness to compromise of the two generations between the 1960s and today. While our students are everywhere, and we must support, nurture and help educate them wherever we are, it is our job at HBCUs to train them en masse, beneath the gaze of those who think they will not appear. I used to tell Brother Chokwe that he, Alton Maddox, and Derrick Bell were three brothers whose personal and intellectual example and consul had transformed my own work as a teacher, researcher, and organizer. I had looked forward to seeing him again, to flying from Thurgood Marshall Airport into Medgar Evers Airport and seeing his picture and name there, as Mayor. Thank you, Brother Chokwe. Counselor. Thinker. Doer. Afrikan. Freer of the Land. You were a long distance runner. Your memory—and the work you did and left for us to do—remains, and the time is fast approaching when subsequent generations must become leaders.