In the aftermath of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s death, a consensus seems to have emerged, at least among his detractors, that he had mellowed with age.
After all, isn’t that what happens? Isn’t the standard narrative that youthful idealism gives way to mature realism?
But a closer look reveals that may not have been the case for Lumumba, whose death at 66 on Feb. 25 came as a shock to everyone except his family and closest friends. He may not have fit that narrative. It could be that he was always a pragmatic guy, just with a shorter-than-normal fuse when it came to tolerance for injustice as he defined it.
Firebrand? You bet. Scary guy as far as the FBI and mainstream Mississippi were concerned? Definitely.
Lumumba hit Mississippi’s capital from his native Detroit in 1971 ago with an “Africanized” name and waving the flag of Dr. Omari Obadele’s Republic of New Afrika. The RNA’s agenda was that by any means necessary the Old South was to be ceded to the descendants of slaves as reparations.
For those who need a refresher course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a laser focus on nonviolence. That, Dr. King preached, was the only route to permanent, effective social change. But he was murdered in 1968. Robert F. Kennedy, also an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, was murdered in 1968. In the spring of 1970, four unarmed students were killed by riot control officers at Kent State in Ohio. Nine days later, Jackson State students were protesting the killings at Kent State, and two innocent bystanders were killed.
America was fast becoming a fertile place for those who didn’t see that giving peace a change was getting much traction. The Republic of New Afrika was willing to secede without gunfire, but was also ready to shoot it out. Revolutionaries. Fanatics.
Jackson police took a back seat to federal authorities in dealing with the RNA, but it was a Jackson officer, Lt. William Skinner, who was killed in an August 1971 shootout that erupted when the FBI attempted to serve arrest warrants at RNA headquarters, a frame home in downtown Jackson.
Lumumba wasn’t there that day, but continued to carry the identity of what, today, people would call a “separatist organization.” In his legal practice nationally and in Mississippi, Lumumba represented a range of clients that might best be called unsympathetic. He made outlandish claims, lost his license, got it back.
Yet later in life as an elected public official he brought a calm analytical/action approach to issues – including seeking and winning approval for a tax increase. He was so patient and goal-oriented that he might have been confused with being – alas! – a conservative.
How is it that a person brought order to chaos when the first half of his life was seemingly devoted to bringing chaos to order? Don’t know. Perhaps we never knew the real Lumumba.
There was fuel for speculation that a Lumumba administration would fail. Kweisi Mfume left the NAACP teetering. Kwami Kilpatrick, pirate/mayor of a devastated Detroit, got 28 years in prison. A sentence is pending for former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Corruption among African-Americans may not come close the corruption among whites, but it stands out more, perhaps due to higher expectations for people so long disenfranchised.
Anyway, less than a year ago when Lumumba was declared winner of the mayoral contest, it wasn’t a stretch to figure that Mississippi’s capital would continue down the wrong road, just at a faster clip. Jackson, like so many cities, would become a center for entitlements, a place where few earned a living and the loudest voices complained day and night that government was not taking good care of them, not passing out enough free stuff. That, however, did not happen. Although he only served eight months, Lumumba charted a course of open government, welcoming anyone and everyone to the table to offer ideas and strategies to reduce crime, improve roads and utilities, make the city a more welcoming place. He gently distanced himself from hangers-on, goofballs and loudmouths who had dominated conversations. He engendered optimism by action, not rhetoric.
Did the radical go soft in his dotage?
It’s possible. But examining the entire narrative of his life, a different view seems more likely. He was a pretty calm guy. There’s plenty of room to debate his definition of justice and just causes, but there can be no doubt he was more dedicated to building up than tearing down.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.