On July 1, 2013, renowned radical lawyer, black nationalist, and Jackson City Council member Chokwe Lumumba was inaugurated as the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. Lumumba ran as a Democrat, gaining 87 percent of the vote in a city of 177,000 with an 80 percent black population.
Lumumba stated several times that his campaign was an extension of the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), of the mid-’60s, that challenged the white segregationist Democratic Party of Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Lumumba’s insurgent grassroots election campaign victory and program made national news. It has opened up an important discussion among the left, socialists, and activists in the South and around the country on how to take the struggle forward in a state and region dominated by the Republican Party, how to implement a radical black agenda in an era of capitalist crisis, and whether the Democratic Party is the vehicle for radical change.
A Withering Magnolia
The state of Mississippi has a bloody, violent history rooted in slavery and the 1861 Southern secession from the union. After the end of the radical Reconstruction Era, it was the site of some of the most horrific events faced by the black working class and poor under Jim Crow: the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955; the assassination of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in 1963; and the murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney in 1964.
The victory of Lumumba reflects the deeper crisis of capitalism and the two-party system of the Democrats and Republicans. The conditions facing the working class and poor of Mississippi are ones of criminal federal and state neglect, the dominance of big business, and the one-party control of the Republican Party. The State of Mississippi ranks last, or second to last, in state expenditures for education and health care, with the second-highest incarceration rate behind Louisiana.
As Ross Eisenbrey correctly states, “In a NY Times article about a drive led by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) to unionize Nissan’s workforce at a factory in Canton, Mississippi, various local businessmen are quoted extolling the value to Mississippi of being a ‘right-to-work state’ and maintaining a ‘non-union environment.’ Given the economic condition of Mississippi, one has to wonder who, exactly, has benefited from Mississippi’s anti-unionism. Mississippi has been a ‘right-to-work’ state for nearly 60 years, plenty of time to benefit from its non-union environment, but its per capita income in 2012 was the lowest in the United States – not just low, but dead last,” (www.epi.org, 10/8/2013).
Who Is Chokwe Lumumba?
The 66-year-old Chokwe Lumumba isn’t a slick corporate politician, but a product of the radical black freedom movement and activism. As a radical lawyer, Lumumba defended the now-deceased Black Panther Party leader Geronimo Pratt, as well as political exile Assata Shakur and hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur. He also played a vital role in securing the release of Mississippi’s Jamie and Gladys Scott. The Scott sisters were given a life sentence in 1996 for armed robbery that totaled 11 dollars. With Jamie Scott suffering from kidney failure, the Scott sisters were released from prison in 2010 due to the work of the legal team headed by Lumumba combined with a local grassroots campaign.
Lumumba is a co-founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and author of The Jackson Plan: A Struggle for Self-Determination, Participatory Democracy, and Economic Justice. Lumumba served as vice-president of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), founded in 1969 to advance the demand of black self-determination, reparations, anti-capitalism, and autonomy in five southeastern states with a black majority – Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina – that would constitute a black nation. In 2009, Chokwe Lumumba was elected to the Jackson City Council, serving Ward 2.
Despite right-wing attacks and a contentious Democratic Party primary race with rival businessman Jonathan Lee, Lumumba’s activism and radical history spoke to the interests of the black working class and poor. But what must be highlighted in Lumumba’s victory is the creative grassroots organizing, mobilizing, and campaigning by activists and the working people themselves. This included the creation of the Jackson People’s Assembly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina of 2005.
The Jackson Plan Initiative
The Jackson Plan: A Struggle for Self-Determination, Participatory Democracy, and Economic Justice, the brainchild of the Jackson People’s Assembly and advanced by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), was born out of crisis, misery, and the ingenuity of working and poor people confronted with an agenda of austerity and profiteering by big business and its two parties in the region. As the Jackson Plan explains, “The Jackson People’s Assembly is the product of the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition (MSDRC) that was spearheaded by MXGM in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of Gulf Coast communities in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. Between 2006 and 2008, this coalition expanded and transformed itself into the Jackson People’s Assembly,” (www.mxgm.org).
At the core of the Jackson Plan is black self-determination, direct political participation (as in the Amandla education project), land redistribution, and building alliances among oppressed peoples and white progressives with a primary focus on people of African descent. It calls for challenging and overturning “right-to-work” laws, building a “solidarity economy” following the international example of the Mondragón federation of cooperative enterprises, based in the Basque region of Spain, and worker-controlled and managed co-ops in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.
The Jackson Plan overall, is a progressive call to action to combat the policies of big business and the historic effects of white supremacy, racism, and class exploitation. There are a number of theoretical points raised in the Jackson Plan, such as self-determination and worker cooperatives, that deserve further elaboration from a Marxist perspective that we will explore in part II.
Class War Declared
The victory of Chokwe Lumumba takes place at a time of deepening crisis in US society. This is rooted in a deepening crisis of the capitalist system of the last few decades.
The words of Chris Hedges are relevant here, “Class struggle defines most of human history. Marx got this right. The sooner we realize that we are locked in deadly warfare with our ruling, corporate elite, the sooner we will realize that these elites must be overthrown. The corporate oligarchs have now seized all institutional systems of power in the United States.” – (Chris Hedges, Let’s Get This Class War Started, TruthDig, Oct 20, 2013)
During the period of the post-world war II economic upswing (1950-1975) the US emerged as the pre-eminent capitalist nation in the world. The US ruling elite had the economic and social wiggle room to provide key programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the ‘Great Society’ policies if the 1960s. Even then, it wasn’t through the benevolence of the ruling elite that these reforms were achieved. It was only massive social struggles of the working class, and the trade union and civil rights movement that forced the ruling elite to concede major reforms.
When the capitalist economy began falling into crisis in the mid 1970s the ruling elite went on the offensive with a neoliberal agenda. Its goal was to take back every economic and social concession that the ruling elite was forced to concede in the period from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s.
Today, in the midst of this great economic recession, the ruling elite has made it clear that the old social contract between the ruling elite and workers will be torn up and thrown into the waste bin of history. The driving goal of the ruling elite is to maximize the profits of the system by any means necessary. Both parties are implicated in pushing through this policy of deep cuts in the last period. The ruling elite have placed their crisis on the backs of working people.
The attack on Social Security by the top corporate American think tanks, like the Business Roundtable, are attempts to turn the clock back to the pre 1930’s when the elderly and workers didn’t have a social safety net that would catch them from falling into deep poverty and deprivation. Most shameful is the vicious attack on Food Stamp allocation. A $40 billion cut was passed by the Republican-dominated House with little fight from Democrats, who instead, were proposing $4 billion in administration cuts from the program.
These cuts have left thousands, mainly children, in a state of food insecurity. In the 2010 fiscal year, 40.3 million people were enrolled. Two years later that number jumped by 16 percent. Just over 45 percent of those getting food stamps are children, according to the Agriculture Department.
According to the census bureau’s supplemental poverty measure, 50 million working people now live in poverty. The gap between the pay of CEOs, compared to workers’, has increased 1,000 percent since 1950. We are witnessing Wall Street’s new mantra change from ‘how much is enough’ to ‘how much can I get’.
As The Real News Network points out, “There are now 1.2 million homeless students in the United States. That’s an increase of 10 percent from last year, according to the National Center for Homeless Education, and that’s up 72 percent from the start of the recession in 2008.” (TRNN, U.S. Student Homelessness Up 10% since last year, November 28, 2013)
Deep Crisis in Mississippi
The crisis has hit Mississippi, already wracked by economic crisis, hard. Twenty percent of Mississippi’s nearly three million residents are on the Medicaid rolls. Twelve percent are on Medicare, and 20 percent are uninsured, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
According to U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2012, Mississippi had a poverty rate of 22.6% in 2011, while its median household income came in at $36,919. The numbers stayed the same for 2012. Its infant mortality rate, at 9.67 deaths per 1,000 live births, is the highest in the nation. Among the black community in Jackson, 27 percent live in poverty. If it were a country, Mississippi would rival any so-called third world nation. The people of Jackson were looking for something new and vibrant to address this deadly cocktail of poverty, racism, and governmental neglect.
The state of Mississippi is controlled by the Republican Party under the leadership of right-wing governor Phil Bryant. In recent months, Mississippi closed the only abortion clinic in the state, attacking women’s rights, and rejected Medicare expansion as part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Congressman Mike Pence, a leader of the powerful Republican Study Group which helped draft President Bush II’s reconstruction agenda following Hurricane Katrina, stated: “We want to turn the Gulf Coast into a magnet for free enterprise. The last thing we want is a federal city where New Orleans once was.” “New Orleans, Old Prejudices,” Mike Davis, October, 2005)
Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s victory highlights the combustible character of U.S. politics. This includes dysfunction of Congress, waning popularity for Obama and outright anger at the two parties (Republican and Democratic). Lumumba was able to win, despite being outspent, attacked and carefully monitored by business interests in Jackson. Lumumba ran as a registered member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
The tradition of support for the Democratic Party in Jackson runs deep. Yet, the national Democratic Party is a corporate party. It is the party of drone bombing, racism, surveillance, and economic austerity. It has carried out the bidding of Wall Street and the 0.01%. Obama’s administration has carried out a brutal attack on the working class, the poor, and people of color.
So a question must be posed: Is the Democratic Party the vehicle to enact the program of Mayor Lumumba and the People’s Assembly?
Don’t Feed the Animals: Breaking the Two-Party System
Malcolm X’s words ring true today:
“They get all the Negro vote, and after they get it, the Negro gets nothing in return. All they did when they got to Washington was give a few big Negroes big jobs. Those big Negroes didn’t need big jobs, they already had jobs. That’s camouflage, that’s trickery, that’s treachery, window-dressing. I’m not trying to knock out the Democrats for the Republicans; we’ll get to them in a minute. But it is true – you put the Democrats first and the Democrats put you last.” (Malcolm X, “The Ballot or Bullet,” April 3, 1964.)
Despite the history of the Democratic Party in Jackson, the Democratic Party shares power with the Republican Party under the capitalist system. It stifles any real political debate and challenges any independent electoral challenges to their power, like the campaigns of Ralph Nader in 2000s. Through its appendage, the Working Families Party in New York, it mobilized to defeat the campaign of left-socialist Green Party member Howie Hawkins in Syracuse.
As a historical example of the destructive relationship of the Democratic Party and African Americans in the region, let’s examine Lowndes County Freedom Organization.
The Lowndes County Freedom Organization
In 1966 the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) in rural Lowndes County, Alabama was organized by Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It was an all-black independent political party that fought against black political disenfranchisement and white supremacy.
The LCFO project was spurred on by the events and lessons of the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. At this convention, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Democratic and Mississippi Democratic Party leadership refused to recognize Fannie Lou Hamer and the other Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) delegates. As Cleveland Sellers, program director for SNCC, would explain, “We left Atlantic City with the knowledge that the movement had turned into something else. After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation,” (Hassan Kwame Jeffries, Blood Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, p. 56).
The work of SNCC and local activists in Lowndes County combining black power politics, grassroots organizing, political education, and the construction of an independent black working-class organization, the LCFO – the original “Black Panther Party”, would be groundbreaking. The LCFO and the Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP) put forward an alternative, organizationally, programmatically, and ideologically to the traditional civil rights organization’s reformist approach, while challenging the Democratic Party in the county. One must keep in mind that the Democratic Party in Alabama was the party of racist governor George Wallace, the Ku Klux Klan, and Lyndon B. Johnson. In the viewpoint of SNCC leadership, the idea of linking themselves to the Democratic Party would be politically distasteful and cut across their organizing efforts.
By 1969, SNCC activists had left Lowndes County, leaving behind a viable organization that had gained important votes and notoriety in county elections in 1966 and 1968 respectively. By 1970, the LCFO would consider a merger with the MFDP’s counterpart in Alabama, a mostly black, but racially integrated, National Democratic Party of Alabama (NDPA) that endorsed Democratic Party candidates nationally. Unfortunately, the LCFO’s merger with the NDPA changed the character of politics in the county, ending the independent character of the LCFO. Many local leaders of the movement would join the Democratic Party. This coincided with a dramatic shift in the black freedom movement after the historic 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana and the escalation of state repression against the movement.
As author of Bloody Lowndes, Hasan Kwame Jeffries, correctly explains, “But when African Americans started looking exclusively to politicians to lead the fight for freedom rights and made the Democratic Party their primary vehicle for advancing the struggle, collective action stopped almost completely. Over-investing in elected officials and the Democratic Party kept African Americans from developing new grassroots leaders, which eventually created a leadership vacuum,” (p. 245).
The Democratic Party’s role is to suffocate, co-op and bury social movements by the working class and poor. Chokwe Lumumba and the Jackson plan can’t be implemented under the banner of an anti-working class party that speaks of working people, but instead, implements an austerity agenda that encompass corporate education deform and frontal attacks on Social Security.
You can’t effectively fight the Democratic Party and advance your agenda while being a member and local representative of the party. This point must be highlighted by activists fighting for an independent working class party. This inside/outside strategy of Mayor Lumumba blunts the sharpness of the debate around breaking from the two-party system.
As long as Mayor Lumumba and the Jackson Plan are confined to Jackson, he will be looked upon as a jolt of energy that’s isolated and controlled. But if Mayor Lumumba and his administration move to truly implement their agenda, the wrath of the national party will come down on Jackson. We must defend any gains made for the lives of Jackson’s working class and poor under a Lumumba administration. But we must also warn that a clean break from the parties of big business is vital and needed in order to advance a working-class agenda.
The Challenges Ahead
Mayor Lumumba, despite his radical resume and Black Nationalist activism is now part of the power structure as a Democratic Party mayor of a major southern city. The contradiction between Lumumba’s radical political background and his role as Democratic Party mayor of Jackson, at a time of deep economic crisis of capitalism, will be exposed in the next period. The poor and working class in Jackson will find no friends in the local elite and big business who are not interested in benefiting the poor and working class. Instead their interests are to make sure that Lumumba fails.
The city has been in economic decline for years. The population has shrunk by 12 percent since 1980, due to white and black middle-class flight to the suburbs of Rankin and Madison counties.
The previous administration in Jackson had agreed in 2009 to a decree which committed the city to spending $400 million to rebuild its decaying wastewater management system over the next 17 years.
Continual water main breakages have created an ongoing crisis. Joe Harvey, a Ward 3 resident, said after the town hall meeting. “The water is undrinkable,” “I have to go to the store and buy $40 of water to drink during the week, and now they are talking about raising the bill on the water I use through the system,” (Jackson Free Press, 9/12/13).
Under the previous mayor, Harvey Johnson, Jr., the city requested the state legislature – controlled by the Republican Party – to approve a one-cent sales tax surcharge to go to public works. The Republican-led legislature demanded a joint city-state commission to direct the fund. The Johnson administration awarded Siemens a $90 million contract for water system improvements.
Lumumba opposed this both as a member of the city council and as a Democratic Party primary candidate. As Mayor, he has now accepted its implementation. His administration at this early stage has sought accommodation rather than an open conflict with the governor’s office, state legislature and local big business. He failed to demand an increase of state expenditure funding to provide for services like water and sewage construction.
Mayor Lumumba’s first budget of $502 million dollars passed the city council with 5-2 vote. The budget included a rate increase on water and sewage services, to be paid for by working people.
These measures, are regressive taxes on the poor and working class of Jackson, and will not help him build a movement to fight for his policies. Instead, he could have called for greater taxation on downtown businesses like the Downtown Jackson Partners, which represents the real estate sector, Siemens, or other powerful white-owned businesses in Jackson to fund the services that are needed.
These actions demonstrate the dilemma faced by any progressive-minded individual who wants to improve conditions of the 99% while working within the pro-big business Democratic Party and refusing to demand that the rich elite pay for the crisis.
Now that Chokwe Lumumba is mayor, his actions show he has taken the position of being a “responsible” elected official and cooperating with big business interests whose only goal is profits and maintaining the status quo. As Ben Allen, the president of Downtown Jackson Partners, states, “I can’t tell you how much I’ve been impressed by this guy…He’s appointed some of his biggest rivals to his economic-development advisory team. I’m one of them. He’s a good listener. We’re hopeful.”
The working class and poor of Jackson will need to build fighting organizations and dynamic campaigns to make their voice heard. The unique character of the upcoming town hall public hearings and People’s Assembly meetings can provide an important arena for democratic discussion and debate on crucial matters facing the working class and poor of Jackson.
As Mattie Wilson Stoddard, vice chair of the People’s Assembly, said, “The People’s Assembly is an independent body. It was developed by the people, for the people, to enable the people. But the time will come when there will be some small differences. We will hold him [Lumumba] accountable,” (AlJazeera America, 9/13/13).
But that will mean the People’s Assembly taking on a new role. They must not only be a center of critique and accountability. They must become a base of independent organizing and struggle to implement a pro-working and poor people agenda that will put pressure on Lumumba and business interests in Jackson. The People’s Assembly must draw the conclusion that the Democratic Party is a dead end for the movement and the people of Jackson, in order to demand a clean break from the Democrats and to demand Lumumba take an independent working class position. This would provide a powerful example for workers and youth in Mississippi and the region. Only a radical and unified movement of workers and youth can end the economic and social misery in Jackson.
Mayor Lumumba’s victory may seem to indicate that the Democratic Party can be a vehicle to promote the interests of the poor and working people. However, this is the exception rather than the rule. The danger is it will sow the seeds for people to believe that the Democratic Party is the answer to the Republican Party’s dominance in the region. The truth is that inside the Democratic Party the more progressive Democrats like former Representative Dennis Kucinich, are held in check by the corporate character of the party, or alienated out of the party like former Georgia Representative, Cynthia McKinney.
The only way to defend our gains and challenge the agenda of Wall Street, will be to revive the methods of social struggle (strikes, civil disobedience, mass pickets and walkouts etc), to build fighting organizations and to develop a militant leadership that will not accept the logic of capitalism. Forging powerful grassroots movements will be a central piece in the rebuilding of the socialist movement in the US.
The election campaigns by Socialist Alternative candidates in Seattle, Boston and Minneapolis were launched to provide an alternative to the policies of big business and its parties. As independent working-class and socialist candidates these campaigns found an echo among workers, youth, and people of color. The campaigns were grounded in the low-wage workers’ struggle for a 15 dollar minimum wage, fighting back against home foreclosures in working class and people of color communities and calling for taxation and public ownership of the major corporations to pay for vital social and public services. The demand for an independent working-class party is now on the agenda.
Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative and a union activist, was elected as a city councilor in Seattle. She has identified the fight for a 15 dollar minimum wage as a key struggle for Seattle for 2014. It will take a battle with the Seattle and Washington State elite to implement this demand. City councilor Sawant and Socialist Alternative are calling on all workers, youth, students and trade union activists to mobilize a grassroots campaign for a $15 minimum wage. Other key demands are for a millionaires tax and rent controls on the obscene price for housing.
Only building strong social struggles can achieve these important reforms. At the same time, we must be clear, in order to permanently cement any gains made in these struggles we must take political and economic power out of the hands of the ruling elite and their institutions. We will need to construct a genuine democratic socialist society that can provide for the social and human needs of the 99%.
Mayor Lumumba’s victory is an important indicator of the state of U.S. capitalism, black America, and working people. A movement of the working class and poor in Jackson is crucial to address this economic, political and social crisis and to win many of the reforms included in the Jackson Plan initiative.
In Part II of this series, we will examine the Jackson Plan, Black Nationalism, Worker Coops and the right of self-determination from a Marxist perspective.