A Revolution of Ideas: Economic Democracy and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s Legacy One Year Later

Posted on March 18, 2015

By Dara Cooper, Contributing Editor, Environment, Food, and Sustainability

“If you don’t love the people, sooner or later you will betray the people.”

“I will say again….We’re about to have a revolution here. A revolution of ideas. We’re about to have new ideas. Good ideas…something that’s going to change the situation for us. We should never be afraid of new ideas. Of good ideas.”

“We have a choice to make. To create an economy for the people, by the people. Or to continue with an economy for the few, for the benefit of themselves.”

-Mayor Chokwe Lumumba

Just over a year ago last February 2014, the world lost an incredible activist, organizer, father, and mentor—Jackson, Mississippi Mayor Chokwe Lumumba who came to be known as “America’s revolutionary mayor”—due to a very sudden death. Although we gained Baba Chokwe as an ancestor,   after only seven months in office, the loss of Mayor Lumumba came as a sudden blow to activists, dreamers and loved ones all over the country. The significance of his revolutionary work, and most notably his term in office, was and will be forever remembered. With scant resources, a radical agenda and revolutionary heart, his candidacy appeared to be a tremendous long shot to most. A strong grassroots strategy that mobilized the masses proved that the power of the people is more than an ideology. The election of Mayor Lumumba was a real life example of the true power of democratic processes and the viability of a radical agenda.

The vision of the Lumumba campaign was grounded in a vision developed through people’s movement assemblies and movement work via the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which Mayor Lumumba helped to co-found. What emerged out of the assemblies became known as the Jackson Kush plan. Mayor Lumumba’s campaign represented important steps in carrying out key components of the Jackson Plan including building a network of progressive political candidates; creating an independent political vehicle; building democratic processes via people’s assemblies (democratic processes); establishing cooperatives; and training a new generation of organizers.


Cooperation Jackson Economic Development PMA

In Mayor Lumumba’s memory, the organizing work moved forward as activists and community leaders in Jackson (along with supportive national allies) coordinated what became known as Jackson Rising- a conference focused on growing and expanding solidarity economies—one of the pillars of the Jackson Kush plan.

One Year Later

I had a chance to visit Jackson recently to catch up with the latest developments. One year later, it’s obvious these organizers are serious. After a successful Jackson Rising Conference with hundreds from all around the country and world attending, the group birthed a movement now known as Cooperation Jackson—an emerging network of cooperatives taking sustainability, self-determination, community development and cooperative economics to a whole new level. To start, the group has worked to launch the new Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development, an exciting model of community self-determination that serves as a base for community meetings, conferences, local and even national events.

The Lumumba Center will also serve as a launch for some major cooperative initiatives in urban farming, arts and culture, and recycling as well as a broader vision of a Sustainable Communities Initiative driving the development of an “eco-village” based on principles of self-determination, sustainability, and community economic development. A primary objective of the Sustainable Communities Initiative is to secure affordable housing through a Community Land Trust.

Led by grassroots organizers, the Lumumba Center completed their renovation of a retired day care center to open its doors for community, organizations, national convenings and even a People’s Movement Assembly (PMA) around Economic Democracy.

Featuring leaders from all over the country (particularly the south), youth, elders and all in between gathered to delve deep into understanding economic democracy and what it would entail to achieve. In a dynamic panel of activists, organizers, and farmers all working in cooperatives, the PMA interrogated the meaning of economic democracy and power.

“For those of us who are old enough to know pre-segregation…we somehow decided we had to leave what we had [once it ended],” long time farmer Ben Burkett said. “If this city [Jackson, Mississippi] is 80% Black, we ought to be controlling 80% of the resources.”

Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Mayor Lumumba’s son, added, “We live in a state where we have so many with so little. And so few with so much.” Chokwe Antar continues his father’s legacy as a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, activist, attorney and a very close run for mayor last year after his father passed. He was unfortunately unsuccessful in securing the seat, but his political work continues. “We have to figure out how the economy will work in the hands of the people,” Lumumba said. “We have to have an opportunity to create opportunities.”

Long time elder in cooperative economics work, Melba Smith, explained that cooperatives “are about vision. It’s about seeing something that doesn’t exist. It’s love in there, spirituality in there.”


Farmer helping with soil test at Cooperation Jackson

Vision, imagination, and love are certainly in the works in Jackson. The Lumumba Center will launch the Nubia Café (named after Mayor Lumumba’s wife, Nubia Lumumba) and will offer healthful, fresh options in addition to internet access and a performance arts space. The café will utilize produce grown from Cooperation Jackson’s new in the works urban farming space that was shaped by young growers with the consultation of long time farmers.

Cooperation Jackson founding member Iya Ifalola Omobola pointed out that redefining cooperation is critical to the vision of the Lumumba Center. “We cannot continue to allow others to dictate to us what economy is, what democracy is, what cooperation is,” she said. “We can set a model for others. We can live off of the land and the land can thrive. And we can work cooperatively.”

This vision of cooperation is made tangible by Kali Akuno, another founding member of Cooperation Jackson, in a recent report:

“A lot is now riding on the success of Cooperation Jackson. If it succeeds—if only in launching two or three viable cooperatives within the next two years—it will serve as proof positive that our vision is attainable. Should it seriously struggle or fall short, it may reinforce the capitalist narrative that ‘there is no alternative,’ and that any and all efforts to produce social equity via collective processes are bound to fail. After decades of combating self-hate, individualism, consumerism, and the ethos of ‘get rich or die trying’—and attaining some success—we cannot afford to go even one step backwards. So the pressure is on.”

The work of Cooperation Jackson is rooted in African American history as Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard explains in her latest book Collective Courage: “In every period of American history, African Americans pooled resources to solve personal, family, social, political, and economic challenges….Many of these were stable collective organizations that lasted for decades.”

Inspired by Baba Chokwe Lumumba’s spirit, energy, brilliance and revolutionary ideas, the work is continuing full force—hopefully for decades to come.