Lessons from Lumumba and King about Progressive Change

Frank Fear

September 18th, 2014

We learn a lot about progressive social change—issues, obstacles, and pathways—by reflecting on the experiences of notable, public figures. A portrait worth studying is Chokwe Lumumba, the Progressive icon who passed away unexpectedly earlier this year. A lifelong champion of human dignity and rights, the final station in Lumumba’s multifaceted life was municipal leadership as mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.

Not long ago I set about collecting my thoughts in writing about Lumumba’s robust character and myriad contributions. But the initial draft was composed prior to the release of Tavis Smiley’s new book (with David Ritz), The Death of a King. Smiley focuses attention on the final year in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Revelations in the book caused me to think more deeply about the challenges Progressives face. It also helped me reframe Lumumba’s contributions and, not incidentally, to view those contributions with even greater appreciation and admiration.

In “The Death of a King” Smiley offers a riveting account of how Dr. King fell out of public favor, not only with mainstream Americans and institutional leaders, but with African Americans as well. What did King do to deserve that fate? He crossed boundaries.

As Smiley sees it, the devolution began with King’s speech at NYC’s Riverside Church on April 4 1967. The speech was not about social and economic justice, it was about The Viet Nam War, America’s role in it and, perhaps most significantly, King’s interpretation of the need for America to recapture its soul. In that speech, entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” King offered these interpretations:

“…the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” [applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered….”

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

Smiley contends that the unraveling of King’s public persona began that day. What we know for sure is that King’s national profile eroded quickly. When polled later in the year nearly 75% of Americans were unsupportive of King and—astonishingly—nearly 60% of African Americans “thought him to be irrelevant.”

King had fallen from grace—quickly, comprehensively, emphatically.

King’s late-life circumstance—the reality of which escaped me during the time it was happening—is a life lesson for Progressive change agents. It’s what can happen when you say and do things that reside outside the boundaries of others’ expectations. King’s experience tells us that shifting one’s predominant frame of reference can make people feel uncomfortable, if not apprehensive. They may respond harshly, intolerant as some might be, to change they neither anticipated nor wanted.

There are ways to avoid this outcome, of course. One alternative is to finesse change—to focus on radical outcome still, but to orchestrate change artfully, surreptitiously. Consider Debra Meyerson’s perspective as articulated in her book, Tempered Radicals. Meyerson offers recommendations for how to close the gap between aspirations and reality by adopting a set of change strategies that result in a ‘both-and’ outcome: securing major change (the ‘radical’ part) without “jeopardizing a hard-won career” (the ‘tempered’ part).

That approach makes sense for some people, especially those who have careers invested in large-scale organizations, but it’s not Chokwe Lumumba’s story. He was strongly committed, persistent, and centered publicly—from start to finish. He worked across the spectrum of change efforts, aligning and re-aligning roles and activities with his sense of “the times.” He took on a variety of roles and (all the while) each role fit well with who he was, what others needed, and what primary constituents expected of him. A case in point is his final role— mayor—where he was drafted for office by citizens. His election platform—“One City, One Aim, and One Destiny”—was defined, in part, through active public participation. He asked. He listened. Then he acted.

Born in Detroit, Lumumba changed his birth name, Edwin Taliaferro, after taking an African history class at Kalamazoo College. Chokwe, which means “hunter,” honors an African tribe; and Lumumba, meaning “gifted,” was taken after the Congolese leader (Patrice Lumumba) who spearheaded Africa’s decolonization movement.

An attorney by profession, Chokwe Lumumba was dedicated to human rights. In 1971 he moved from Michigan to Mississippi, a state well known for racial oppression. Mississippi was where Medgar Edgars had been assassinated. It was where three civil rights workers were murdered in the ‘60s. And it was where teenager Emmett Till was kidnapped and killed in 1955. Lumumba wanted to live there because it was the epicenter associated with his life-work.

In a world where ‘leadership’ often translates into power over, Lumumba’s ethos was different: he emphasized powerwith. That’s not easy to do—anywhere in the world—in Mississippi, certainly, and especially in those days. And, sadly, times haven’t changed inordinately. Consider an incident that took place at Ole’ Miss earlier this year: a noose was placed around the neck of James Meredith’s figure (the university’s first black student), his statue draped in The Confederate flag.

Lumumba lived his life along the racial divide. In the ‘70s and ‘80s he played a leadership role in a group called “The Republic of New Afrika.” One goal was to establish a predominantly black government in the southeastern U.S.  Not long before his death Lumumba told the press that the effort wasn’t undertaken with separatist intent. The effort was designed to secure “reparations for slavery” and to achieve “human rights for black people”. Inarguably controversial back then, the reparation topic is receiving renewed interest. Witness the widely read and critically acclaimed article, “The Case for Reparations,” which appeared in the May ’14 issue of The Atlantic.

Seemingly dissimilar efforts—Lumumba’s involvement in New Afrika and, later, his election as mayor, well illustrate two strands of his life story—seeking justice for African Americans and bringing togetherall people in common pursuits.

Lumumba’s justice-seeking efforts were undertaken primarily through legal advocacy. He gained national attention for defending Tupac Shakur, the music icon, accused of assaulting off-duty police officers. In another instance Lumumba secured the prison release of The Scott Sisters—working with then-governor Haley Barbour in the process—in a highly publicized legal case. Earlier, the sisters were given double life sentences for an armed robbery of less than $200.

Election to office catapulted Lumumba back into the national spotlight, this time politically. His 2013 victory—together with Bill de Blasio’s election to NYC’s top spot—produced Progressive triumphs. Each candidate ran on a change agenda and, in Lumumba’s case, it meant rebuilding Jackson—a city that’s 80% African American (the second largest concentration of blacks in any American city over 100,000 population) and with over 30% of its residents living below the poverty line.

Lumumba proposed, and the public approved, raising taxes to fix the city’s infrastructure—first by increasing water and sewer rates and, then, by boosting the sales tax 1%. Lumumba’s next major initiative, “Jackson Rising,” had a much-needed economic development focus. A city-wide conference was held after his death (in May ’14), and it was preceded by a series of neighborhood forums.

Throughout his life Lumumba never strayed from strongly held convictions about human rights, equality, and social justice—life commitments made as a youth when he saw Till’s mangled face in a magazine photo. He was an exceptionally skillful communicator, always selecting words carefully, expressing ideas thoughtfully, and speaking directly and plainly. He engaged people authentically, building and sustaining trust that way. Lumumba parlayed grassroots organizing skills into professional and political success. He was “of and for the people” in everything he did, and in all the roles he played, throughout his lifetime.

Sadly, a good share of America never got to know—and experience—Chokwe Lumumba. He was stunningly good at what he did. And in a world where personality matters, Lumumba had the innate capacity to grab peoples’ attention. That gave him a fighting chance to influence those who might otherwise tune out or turn away.

The stark reality is that King and Lumumba are gone. It’s our turn now. The biggest challenge—for them and for us—is bringing progressive values, ideas, policies, and programs into the mainstream. That’s exactly what King and Lumumba did—both emphatically, sometimes differently—with King’s public profile waning at the end and Lumumba’s portrait ascending.

We have a better chance of succeeding, I think, if we can learn from their life experiences—applying lessons, as best we can, in the public work we are called to do, whatever and wherever that may be.

Posted by LA Progressive