Chokwe Lumumba: Will Mississippi mayoral candidate's radical past railroad campaign?

JACKSON, Miss.— Spreading a message of economic revival and unity for all people, Jackson, Mississippi mayoral candidate Councilman Chokwe Lumumba has emerged as the favorite Democrat, following primary elections and a contentious runoff in which he triumphed over former chairman of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce Jonathan Lee.

His race to win in the June 4th general election conveniently met with his past as a civil rights activist and lawyer to high-profile clients as he sought to take on a more moderate tone, dispel notions that he has any racial biases and appeal to residents who vote across the board in the nearly 80 percent African-American southern city.

“My call for unity in Jackson is consistent with the work to which I’ve dedicated my life. Work that champions equity for all classes, races and communities,” he recently posted to a Facebook page run by his campaign. “My life-long bias against oppression should not be confused for a bias against any group of people.”

Empowerment of ‘all the population’

The 65-year-old councilman has repeatedly advocated for seeing that percentage of African-Americans reflected more in city government. “What I’m looking for is the empowerment of the population of the 80 percent (African-American population) that’s there,” he told the Jackson Free Press in April. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m looking for the empowerment of all the population.”

Lumumba declined to speak with national news outlets until after the general election because of the intense race for mayor, according to a spokeswoman from his campaign.

In the predominantly African-American city, as the winner of the runoff, he is expected to win the race that would make him Jackson’s third African-American mayor since current Mayor Harvey Johnson, Jr., the first, won his first term in 1997.

Joining ‘the movement’

A native of Detroit, Mich., Lumumba has over four decades of experience in civil and human rights. Born Edwin Taliaferro, Lumumba later renounced his birth name and took on Chokwe after an Angolian tribe that was one of the last to resist the slave trade. He chose Lumumba after an African leader who helped lead the continent to decolonize and gain independence. He grew up during the height civil rights conflicts in the South, recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination as the event that motivated him to join “the movement.” Before long, Lumumba was fighting from rallies and eventually courtrooms and the Jackson City Council.

In 1969, Lumumba attended Detroit-based Wayne State University law school, where he and 17 other students sued for what they described as a discriminatory grading system. Before suing, he and the group had occupied Wayne State University’s law school administration building, demanded that failed students be reinstated and called for an anonymous grading system.

While in law school, Lumumba also served as a founding member and vice president of the New Afrikan People’s Organization, which sought to “advocate for an independent nation” for black people by obtaining land in the southeastern part of the United States.

He helped the group purchase its first plot of land near Jackson for a nation-state that would become home of the Republic of New Afrika. The nation-state was to be situated across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, however plans ended abruptly in a violent early-morning shootout near Jackson State University on Aug. 18, 1971, that left one Jackson police officer dead.

A history of fighting the establishment

A few years later, after returning to Wayne State University and graduating at the top of his law school class in 1977, Lumumba worked for the City of Detroit’s Defender’s Office, and later co-founded a Detroit-based law firm.

Lumumba eventually became an attorney to several high-profile clients, including rapper Tupac Shakur and Lance Parker, a man accused of trying to shoot a gas tank during an assault on a white trucker in the 1991 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, in which he won an acquittal for Parker. Lumumba also defended Gladys and Jamie Scott, who had received double life sentences for an armed robbery worth somewhere between $11 and $200.

As Jackson’s Ward 2 city Councilman, Lumumba spent much of his four-year term fighting for more minority representation on city contracts in a city where African-Americans are the majority by number.

‘The medium voter theorem’

No Republicans are running to replace Lumumba. Three Independent candidates, Francis Smith, Jr., Richard Williams, Jr. and Cornelius Griggs are on the ballot. The tougher struggle for Lumumba was during the primary elections, according to Jackson State University professor and former chair of the Political Science Department D’Andra Orey, a Jackson native who specializes in politics, racial attitudes and legislative behavior.