Katie Gilbert, Oxford American
Katie Gilbert lives in Chicago. She has written for Al Jazeera America, the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, and others.
Chokwe Lumumba had been the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, for five months when, in November 2013, he stood behind a lectern and addressed a group of out-of-towners with a curious phrase he would soon explain with a story: “Good afternoon, everybody, and free the land!”
On his tall, thin frame he wore a bright blue tie and a loosely fitting suit, extra fabric collecting around the shoulders of his jacket. Wire-rimmed glasses rested over a perpetually furrowed brow on his narrow, thoughtful, frequently smiling face. A faint white mustache grazed his upper lip.
In welcoming the attendees of the Neighborhood Funders Group Conference, a convening of grantmaking institutions, Mayor Lumumba was conversational and at ease, as he tended to be with microphone in hand. His friends had long teased him for his loquaciousness in front of a crowd.
Lumumba informed the room that on the car ride over he’d decided he would tell them a story. He explained that big things were happening in Jackson—or, were about to happen—and his story would offer some context. It was one he had recounted many times. Polished smooth, the story was like an object he kept in his pocket and worried with his thumb until it took on the sheen of something from a fable, though the people and events were real. “It was March of 1971 when I first came to the state of Mississippi,” Lumumba began. “It was several months after the students at Jackson State had been murdered,” he said, referring to the tragedy at the city’s predominantly black college, which left two dead and twelve injured after police opened fire on a campus dormitory in May 1970, less than two weeks after the Kent State shootings.
Lumumba had traveled to Mississippi with a group called the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika. He was twenty-three at the time and was taking a break from his second year of law school in Detroit. He had put his training on hold for the work of new-society building. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Lumumba had been increasingly drawn to what he considered the radical humanism of the Provisional Government’s plan to create a new, majority-black nation in the Deep South. The PG-RNA planned to peacefully petition the United States government for the five states where the concentration of black population was largest: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Leaders framed their demand for this transfer as a reparations payment after centuries of enslavement and degradation that black people had experienced in America. As part of a symbolic effort to break with a painful past and announce a new way forward, the PG-RNA encouraged New Afrikans to shed names with European origins in favor of African ones. Edwin Taliaferro became Chokwe Lumumba: Chokwe, he said, for one of the last tribes to successfully resist the slave trade and Lumumba for Patrice Lumumba, who led Congo to independence and became its first democratically elected prime minister. The Republic of New Afrika’s Declaration of Independence announced that its socialist society, arranged around cooperative economics, would be “better than what we now know and as perfect as man can make it.”
By March of 1971, when the mayor’s story began, Lumumba was an officer in the Provisional Government. The organization had made an oral agreement to buy twenty acres of land from a black farmer in Bolton, Mississippi, a small town about twenty miles west of Jackson. They had hired a contractor to build a school and dining hall on the property. The site would be named El Malik after the name Malcolm X had taken for himself: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. March 28, a Sunday, had been chosen as Land Celebration Day, when the group would inaugurate the site at El Malik.
Lumumba was in the caravan’s lead vehicle as they approached Bolton that afternoon. Forty-two years later, he described to the conference attendees in Jackson how the Klan drove up and down the road in their trucks, brandishing weapons, and how state, local, and federal police formed a barricade across the road. Mississippi’s attorney general,
A. F. Summer, had declared that there would be no Land Celebration Day. Akinyele Omowale Umoja, an African-American Studies professor at Georgia State University, writes in his book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement that the day before the scheduled event, PG-RNA leaders had seen a hand-painted sign near the property that the KKK had posted: NIGGERS, THERE WILL BE NO MEETING HERE SUNDAY. FREE SIX-FOOT HOLES.
Mayor Lumumba paused, and when he spoke again his voice had moved up a register. “This was a different day about to break,” he said. “And even though sometimes we break our days somewhat recklessly, it was certainly gonna break. There were five hundred of us”—other records say there were one hundred fifty—“and we said, ‘We come in peace, but we come prepared.’ We had old people, we had young people, we had babies. We were praying. Hard revolutionaries, driven back to prayer!” He laughed. “Looking for God wherever we could find Him.”
The day might well have combusted. What happened instead, Lumumba told the audience, was something that seemed, even as it unfolded, like a miracle best left unexamined. “I know it’s hard for a lot of you to believe this—that roadblock opened up. Just like the Red Sea.”
Past the barricade, the New Afrikans traveled five miles. They had arrived. Two months later, the Bolton farmer would renege on his agreement to sell, and support for the PG-RNA and its efforts would wane over the next few years, as FBI and state and local police pushed successful counterintelligence programs to undermine the group’s efforts. But in looking back, Lumumba focused on the energy of that Sunday, when the people around him fell to the ground in such profound joy that they began to eat the dirt, he recalled, out of a spontaneous desire to take into their bodies the freedom they believed they’d found. “That’s where that slogan came from,” Lumumba said. “‘Free the land.’”
In Lumumba’s successful campaigns for city council in 2009 and for mayor in 2013, “Free the land” had been a common refrain of his supporters. His platform, too, echoed the vision he and his fellow New Afrikans had harbored for their new society on Land Celebration Day. He pledged that his office would support the establishment of a large network of cooperatively owned businesses in Jackson, often describing Mondragon, a Spanish town where an ecosystem of cooperatives sprouted half a century ago. In debates and interviews, he promised that Jackson, under the leadership of a Lumumba administration, would flourish as the “Mondragon of the South”—the “City of the Future.”
As Mayor Lumumba neared the end of the story of Land Celebration Day, his voice faltered. He turned his head and squeezed his eyes closed to regain composure. The memory of Land Celebration Day was still a live wire running through him and through his plans as mayor of Jackson.
“The reason I started off with that little prelude,” he told the Neighborhood Funders Group Conference attendees, “is that I wanted to say that what has not changed is the vision of that new society, that new way of thinking. That new way of engineering and governing a society, where everyone would be treated with dignity. Where there would be no class, no gender, or color discrimination. Even though it didn’t happen in that little community which we called El Malik, now it’s about to happen in Jackson, Mississippi. And would you believe it?”
As a child, Chokwe Lumumba’s son Chokwe Antar sometimes wished for another name, one that sounded more like those of his friends. But Antar also trusted his parents, and he looked up to them. He knew his father’s work as a civil rights–oriented lawyer was important, and he used to sneak out of his bed at night to lie on the floor of his parents’ room and listen as they discussed his father’s cases. He shared his father’s name, and he would grow up to share his profession.
After Land Celebration Day in 1971, Chokwe Lumumba returned to Detroit and finished his law degree. In 1976, he joined the Detroit Public Defenders Office, and two years later he opened his own law firm. In 1986, Chokwe and his wife, a flight attendant born Patricia Ann Burke who changed her name to Nubia Lumumba, moved their family to Brooklyn so Chokwe could better represent his high-profile clients there, including black nationalist Mutulu Shakur and his stepson, Tupac Shakur. Even after the PG-RNA dissolved, Lumumba had never stopped thinking about how a group of determined activists could build a new society where black people could escape racism, racist violence, and deprivation. Lumumba cofounded two organizations to keep working toward versions of the PG-RNA goal: the New Afrikan People’s Organization in 1984, and, later, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. According to Professor Umoja, NAPO’s members still oriented themselves toward the goal of a black nation. MXGM was slightly different—members advocated self-determination for black communities using a variety of means, including independence, but also sought other paths that would lead toward empowerment and liberation. In 1988, when the couple’s daughter, Rukia, was nine, and their son, Antar, was five, the Lumumbas relocated to Jackson, Mississippi. In the following years, Chokwe and Nubia would often tell Rukia and Antar that they’d come to the South because there was work to be done there and because they wanted to give their children the struggle.
Lumumba’s work as a lawyer invited renown to the family, but also occasional vitriol. Antar and Rukia spent one afternoon hiding in a closet with a knife clutched between them after a death threat was breathed over the phone while their parents were away. In high school, on the phone with a girlfriend, Antar would wrap up by saying, “Okay, goodbye to you, too, FBI!” His parents always said that the house’s phones were tapped. Years later, among the hundreds of pages of documents that emerged from a Freedom of Information Act request for FBI reports on Chokwe Lumumba, Antar saw his high school graduation photo. The sight of it there didn’t unsettle him because it confirmed what he’d always been told.
After Antar’s freshman year at Murrah High School, his father judged that basketball was too prominent a priority in his son’s life and decided that Antar would transfer from his school and its championship team. Chokwe offered him a list of new high schools to choose from. Antar entered his sophomore year at Callaway High as a D-average student, and he went on to graduate in the top 10 percent of his class.
Antar recalls that his mother used to joke, with an edge of seriousness, that her children had better not pursue that “same old boring lawyer thing” that took so much of her husband’s time without bringing in as much money as it should. She hoped her children would pursue careers that would allow them the finer things in life. She noted that Antar loved drawing street plans and hearing her talk about Benjamin Banneker’s designs for Washington, D.C., and that math seemed to come easy to him. She pushed him to consider becoming an engineer or an architect. Most of all, she seemed to want to ensure that her son didn’t choose a career just because it was his father’s.
But once Antar entered college at Tuskegee University in Alabama, he never seriously considered anything but a path to law school. After he earned a J.D. from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, he returned home in 2008 to help run his father’s law practice. Within the year, he was watching his FBI-surveilled activist father wade into the quagmire of Jackson city politics. Chokwe had been tapped as the public face of a long-brewing effort to continue working toward the PG-RNA’s vision of an egalitarian, black-led society—or at least some version of it.
In the early 2000s, MXGM’s leadership formed a think tank to plot out a twenty-first-century strategy to realize the new-society dream. After some discussion, at the organization’s annual Ideological Conference in 2005, MXGM’s national membership determined that Mississippi was the best staging ground for the experiment in society building—the same conclusion the PG-RNA had come to in the 1970s. The eighteen contiguous counties that run along the Mississippi River on the state’s western edge are all majority black (except one, which is 47.8 percent black). The MXGM new-society drafters referred to this line of counties along the Mississippi Delta as the Kush District, as PG-RNA leadership had, named after the ancient civilization built along the banks of the Nile, in what is now Egypt and Sudan. MXGM members began moving to Jackson from all across the country. In 2012, after roughly ten years of refining their blueprint, the think tank posted a draft of its Jackson-Kush Plan to the MXGM website. The document detailed steps to build a socialist, majority-black, eco-focused model society within Mississippi’s shrinking capital city, as well as initiatives to mobilize communities in the Kush district, and expand from there.
The society described in the Jackson-Kush Plan was a close descendant of the one envisioned by the PG-RNA, with some tweaks based on lessons learned and the interests of the drafters three decades after Land Celebration Day. Like the PG-RNA vision, a central pillar of the new society would be economic democracy based in cooperative ownership. Another would be the embrace of fully participatory democracy through the organization of self-governing organs called People’s Assemblies, which would be the loci of real decision-making power in the communities where they operated.
The starkest difference between the PG-RNA’s and the Jackson-Kush Plan’s new-society visions was in the stance on engaging with the country’s established system of electoral politics. The PG-RNA’s leaders had based their call for a new society on the argument that the federal, state, and local governments were illegitimate, since they had long relied on broad disenfranchisement to amass their power. MXGM revised this stance: A central goal described in the Jackson-Kush Plan was the development of progressive political candidates who, if elected, could support the goals of economic democracy and self-governing People’s Assemblies from that elected office.
In 2008, two of the drafters of the Jackson-Kush Plan approached Chokwe Lumumba about running as one of those candidates. They also approached Antar, then twenty-five, about running for a city council seat. Antar demurred. The idea of running for office wasn’t practical in his mind or, frankly, all that appealing. He’d just returned to the city after seven years away at school; outside of family and friends, not many people knew him in Jackson, and, beyond that, he had little interest in electoral politics as a form of public service. Antar tried to dissuade his father from running, too—Chokwe Lumumba may have been a highly respected lawyer in the community, but that didn’t make for a political profile prominent enough to run a successful campaign. His father agreed; mayor would be too much just then. He’d run for city council instead. But he made it clear that he disagreed with his son on the broader point: Antar needed to consider running for office someday. Sometimes, he told his son, the movement requires that we give of ourselves and do something we didn’t envision.
In 2012, as Chokwe was finishing his term on the council and shifting his attention to his run for mayor, MXGM pressed Antar to run to fill his father’s vacated council seat. He declined again. Antar had just married his longtime girlfriend, Ebony, an English professor at Tougaloo College, and months later, they’d learn she was pregnant. But he dedicated himself fully to his father’s campaign, serving as its official spokesperson as he helped to draft the platform on which Chokwe Lumumba would squeak into a runoff election after a second-place finish in the Democratic primary—and go on to win the mayorship. Still, Antar harbored absolutely no interest in becoming a politician himself, and he couldn’t imagine what would ever change his mind.
It wouldn’t be long before he’d find out.
On a Tuesday morning in late February 2014, not quite eight months into Chokwe’s term, the mayor called his son complaining of chest pains. Antar left court and rushed to Chokwe’s house to drive his father to the emergency room at St. Dominic’s Hospital. Mayor Lumumba told the hospital staff that he thought he might be having a heart attack. According to a 2016 lawsuit filed by the family against St. Dominic’s, Chokwe waited hours at the hospital before he received any treatment. According to the lawsuit, a cardiologist recommended a blood transfusion. Just before 5 p.m., Chokwe died suddenly. The cause of death was later determined to be a heart attack.
Shock and grief coursed through Jackson with the news that the mayor was dead. Many Jacksonians were still nursing the morale boost that had come with Lumumba’s election. They had faith that their city was about to figure out new ways to address longstanding problems: crumbling streets and dangerously outdated water infrastructure, a depleted tax base, a lack of jobs. During his brief tenure, the late mayor had asked the city to vote on a new 1 percent sales tax to help begin to pay for the infrastructure fixes the city desperately needed. He’d helped organize People’s Assemblies to provide forums to answer Jacksonians’ questions about the proposal. Voters approved the new tax with 90 percent in favor.
“There was a sense of loss greater than just his passing,” Antar told me later. “People said to me, ‘We felt like we were on the right track. What do we do now?’”
At Chokwe’s funeral, former Mississippi governor William Winter, a Democrat, admitted that during the mayoral campaign, he’d feared that as mayor Lumumba would divide the capital city. “I could not have been more wrong,” he said, adding, “The strong leadership of Chokwe Lumumba has opened the door to a bright future for us.”
On the night that Chokwe died, Antar was the only family member present. His mother had passed away ten years before from a brain aneurysm, and Rukia was rushing to Jackson from her home in New York. As he waited for Rukia and extended family in Detroit to arrive, Antar asked the friends who had gathered in the hospital room to give him some time alone with his just-deceased father. In that quiet moment, before the shock of Lumumba’s death had spread through Jackson, Antar resolved to run for mayor. He would keep the decision to himself until he told his wife the next morning, giving himself the night to turn it over in his head. But as soon as the idea came to him in that hospital room, he knew he wouldn’t separate himself from it again. He thought of his father’s mandate: Sometimes the movement requires that you give of yourself and do something you didn’t envision as part of your plan. A more practical concern was bearing down on him, too. The new-society vision needed a new protector, a new vessel. Who else could it be but him?
Chokwe Antar Lumumba was thirty at the time, and he looked younger. In his public appearances he shifted between a lawyerly, knitted-brow seriousness, often repeating the last few words of a sentence to underline his point, and a readiness to amiably tease a friend or fellow candidate and break into his boyish laugh. I would come to learn that with strangers and familiars alike his charisma takes the form of a warm accessibility, the sense that he has time for everyone, and doesn’t begrudge anyone who asks for it.
I traveled to Jackson for the first time in March 2016, two years after Chokwe Lumumba died. In Chicago, where I live, the protracted winter still lingered, but I found Jackson was already in full leaf, deep into spring. My hotel on North State Street was across from a middle school whose grounds included space for a modest football field, faded tennis courts, and a scuffed soccer field. Across the street to the north was the sprawling campus of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the city’s largest employer after the State of Mississippi, with about ten thousand employees. Up the road was the Fondren District, the site of a dedicated revitalization effort led over the past two decades by nearby residents, where coffee shops’ signs bore thoughtful fonts and a tapas restaurant and oyster bar made new use of a shuttered public school.
Antar met me in the lobby of my lodge-themed hotel on one of my first evenings in town. He strode in wearing a black hoodie and a flat-brimmed Detroit Tigers ball cap. He had waves for the people he knew behind the front desk and a handshake for me. We sat at one of the lobby’s round wooden tables and Antar told me about the last couple of years, affirming his continued dedication to the work his father had left unfinished. His wedding ring clanged against the table’s glass top when he struck it to emphasize his points, which he did when he brought up cooperatives. “What we have to establish are businesses that are in the business of making money but also have an interest in serving the community—not in picking up and moving out,” he said. He laid out an analysis of why the solutions delineated in the Jackson-Kush Plan were still necessary, quoting Malcolm X, Gandhi, and his father. He spoke of the importance of oppressed people leading self-determined lives, resurrecting the parlance of the Republic of New Afrika. But other parts of his analysis were more current, like when he talked about mass incarceration and the proliferation of prisons as a Band-Aid over the U.S.’s industrial decline and stagnant economy. “On many levels, this economic experiment that we have in this country is a failed model,” he said with another strike to the glass. “And it’s a failed model in particular for oppressed people.”
Six weeks after his father’s death, Antar ran in the April 2014 special election for mayor. He lost in a runoff to Tony Yarber, founder and pastor of the majority-black Relevant Empowerment Church. As mayor, Yarber had scrapped the most notable parts of the Lumumba administration’s agenda, including plans for the city-supported cooperative businesses, the People’s Assemblies, and the goal to turn Jackson into a zero-waste city.
Antar’s loss was another setback for the new-society goal, so the MXGM members most connected to the Jackson-Kush Plan shifted their route forward yet again. That May, members of Lumumba’s former administration and MXGM went ahead with what had been planned as a city-supported event called the Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference. The three-day summit sought to provide an educational foundation for attendees in building the pieces of a democratic, cooperative economy. At the end of the conference, a few core members of MXGM announced a new organization called Cooperation Jackson to continue the co-op–building goal.
In late 2015, I had emailed Cooperation Jackson and a few days later I was on the phone with Sacajawea Hall, a cofounder of the organization who had moved to Jackson from Atlanta in December 2013. I’d been doing some traveling, guided by an interest in alternative economic models inside the United States. The prehistory of this interest might be traced to 2006 when, at twenty-two years old, I took a job as a researcher for Institutional Investor’s Alpha, a magazine that analyzes hedge funds, which I knew next to nothing about. I was to help coax information from secretive hedge fund managers about the billions of dollars under their management. I had no idea that I’d taken the job on the eve of the strangest moment in nearly a century to be covering the financial industry. By 2008, I was reporting for Alpha and that year the public, U.S.-based pension funds I covered collectively lost more than one-fourth of their value after the collapse of the global financial market. Suddenly, knowing nothing became our shared national condition as we watched our economic system flail in the precise ways we were told it never would. The revoking of this system’s untouchable status granted us permission to peer into our enormous, tangled economic apparatus and ask: In what ways has this system long been failing us? And, more crucially: What might we build that’s better? Radical economic experiments have proliferated in the U.S. since the 2008 collapse—but then, they feel radical only if you’ve lived your life, as most of us have, believing that profit maximization, endless economic growth, and the individual’s mandate to consume are circumstances as intrinsically human as hunger and childbirth. I count myself among those who struggle to imagine living within any other economic arrangement, but by the time I called Saki Hall I was starting to understand that other people’s imaginations have granted them more leeway, and some were living out economic experiments that embody alternatives. At the end of our conversation, Saki invited me to come see for myself what Cooperation Jackson was doing.
The month before my trip, I spent a week living and working at Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia. Twin Oaks is a fifty-year-old fully egalitarian mini-society of roughly one hundred members, where labor and governance systems are modeled from the utopia described in B. F. Skinner’s novel Walden Two. At Twin Oaks, I hauled soil on a vegetable farm, snipped strawberry bushes, and hosed down equipment in the tofu factory. I helped two affable men named Tony and Ezra prepare a Sunday dinner of split pea soup, smoked pork belly, and baguettes. I was apprised of the joys of polyamory, the necessity of requiring the group’s permission for pregnancy in a community where children are supported by the whole, and the freedom in not being defined by a lifetime in a single job or role. During my week at Twin Oaks, the pebble I couldn’t loose from my shoe was the place’s overwhelming whiteness. It was also true that the preponderance of people at Twin Oaks came from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Here was a vision for a drastically new way of thinking about our economic arrangement, and yet its population lacked representation from the racial minorities who had for so long been kept away from the levers of economic control in our country. I didn’t know if this constituted a failure of Twin Oaks’s model—but it made me less interested in the experiment being run there.
In the course of my research, I had never heard Chokwe Lumumba or any member of MXGM or Cooperation Jackson describe the Jackson-Kush Plan as a utopian vision. Still, when I arrived in Mississippi, a line from utopian scholar Ruth Levitas rattled in my head: “Utopia’s strongest function, its claim to being important rather than a matter of esoteric fascination and charm, is its capacity to inspire the pursuit of a world transformed, to embody hope rather than simply desire.” If I wanted to plot for myself the coordinates of the line between fantastical and real societies; between unheard-of ambitions for change and perfectly familiar ones; between a fable told for comfort and a plan for real change on the ground somewhere, I felt that I needed to better understand what was happening in Jackson. I hoped being there would offer some insight into how those lines are drawn, and how fixed they really are.
Toward the end of our conversation in the hotel lobby, Antar departed from the scholarly analysis and made a declaration that struck me as uncharacteristically dramatic: He saw Jackson, Mississippi (and he never said the city without the state), as a last chance. This was a place where long-marginalized black communities could build a new economy for themselves, a democratic and fair society, a foundation for good lives to grow from. In his mind, this black-majority city that sat in the middle of the state with the highest concentration of black people in our country had to be the staging ground for this particular experiment in moving past economic and governance systems that weren’t working for so many. Antar told me he was grateful he hadn’t won the special election in 2014. He wasn’t ready then, he’d realized. But now he was. Though he hadn’t publicly announced it, he said he would run for mayor of Jackson again in 2017.
An abundance of deep, wide potholes was my first indication that something wasn’t quite working in Jackson. After an earlier rainstorm, the pockmarks dotting the capital city’s streets shimmered with mock placidity. “I was trying to miss that one!” Saki exclaimed after her car lurched through a pothole pond spanning two lanes, throwing us against our seat belts and jostling the car seats embracing her five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son in the back seat. A red plastic plate dotted with the crumbs from her daughter’s breakfast hopped from Saki’s lap to her feet.
Saki wanted to talk about the potholes: Did I see all of them? See that one there, how deep it is? To Saki, the potholes stood for something more than a threat to her car’s underbody. To Saki, and, I would soon learn, to many other Jacksonians, the proliferation of unfilled potholes was a clear sign of a downward spiral in full effect.
Saki had picked me up from my hotel on my first day in town with an offer of a driving tour of Jackson. I enthusiastically accepted. We trundled southward over the potholes until we reached downtown. Well-maintained grounds studded with magnolias and tupelos spread out around the grand, Greek Revival State Capitol, Governor’s Mansion, and City Hall. These were interspersed with muted, modern, concrete and steel buildings housing government agencies like the Mississippi Gaming Commission and the Parole Board. A few local restaurants operated out of the downtown storefronts, but many of the storefronts stood tenantless. Faded signs indicated the businesses that had since departed or dissolved, imparting a feeling that the past remained cloyingly close by.
In the decades before the Civil War, the newly crowned capital city had prospered as cotton made Mississippi a wealthy state. That changed in 1863 when Union armies destroyed Jackson; its skeletal remains allegedly earned it the nickname “Chimneyville.” The city has been struggling to claw back to its former economic abundance ever since.
During Mississippi’s eleven years of Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau established by the U.S. Congress helped lay the foundation for the state’s public school system. Black citizens’ participation in democracy was higher than in any other Southern state—more than two hundred black people were elected to public office during the period. But a concerted effort to alter the trajectory of societal reshaping, called the Mississippi Plan, was devastatingly successful. Developed in 1875 by the conservative Democrats desperate to eject Reconstruction-supporting Republicans from office, the Mississippi Plan employed organized violence to intimidate and kill those working toward a society in which races were equal. Democrats had regained political power by 1876; in 1890, they passed a new state constitution that concretized the exclusion of black citizens from the democratic process. In two years, the number of black Mississippians registered to vote fell from 142,000 to 68,117. Generations later, Mississippi’s public schools managed to delay real desegregation for sixteen years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. According to the Mississippi Historical Society, one-third of the districts in the state had achieved no desegregation by 1967 and less than three percent of the state’s black children attended classes with white children. It took another Supreme Court decision, in 1969, to force real desegregation in Mississippi.
Jackson was 60 percent white in 1970, and by the 2010 census, 18 percent white. The city’s population decreased from nearly 200,000 in 1990 to under 170,000 in 2016. As the majority-white suburbs expanded, they turned into a kind of sticky ring around the city center, pulling economic development out of Jackson. The Mississippi Department of Revenue reports that the city of Jackson brought in approximately $117 million in gross sales tax in fiscal year 1990 and $177.6 million in fiscal year 2016—worse than stagnant when accounting for inflation. And as the tax base has crumbled, so has the city’s infrastructure. The Clarion-Ledger wrote in March 2017 that a report from an engineering firm in 2013 found that more than 60 percent of Jackson streets had four years or less of serviceable life left. In 2017, that life is about spent.
Saki steered us a few blocks west of downtown, to a silent stretch of streets lined with one- and two-story buildings. These were more like memories of buildings, with empty window frames, unkempt overgrowth outside, and encroaching wilderness inside. Saki told me we were in the middle of the Farish Street Historical District.
Farish Street was built by slaves and after emancipation it came to be used primarily by the formerly enslaved. A new business district emerged during Reconstruction, and it thrived in Jim Crow’s “separate-but-equal” South as an alternative to the Capitol District blocks away, where black Jacksonians weren’t welcome. Farish Street was one of the largest African-American districts in the South; it held legal firms, doctors, dentists, jewelers, banks, retail stores, and hospitals.
In the 1950s, black activists mobilized black and white protestors to put pressure on white-owned businesses across the city to allow access to black customers. A sit-in at a Jackson Woolworth’s turned violent. When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, mandating the desegregation of public places, many African Americans in Jackson celebrated their victory by taking full advantage of it, bringing their spending to previously inaccessible white businesses. The African-American business owners on Farish Street suffered. Integration didn’t work both ways; as black people moved into previously white spaces, white spending failed to flow into Farish Street. Integration hadn’t happened between two groups with equal economic footing and control, a fact for which Farish Street’s slow implosion offers lingering evidence. Businesses closed like falling dominoes and new ones stayed away as the area became known as a magnet for drugs and prostitution. Revitalization efforts of various kinds were killed by infighting and funds insufficient to the area’s growing needs. What I saw outside of Saki’s car window in March 2016 was the result of this history: an abandoned community, a failure on the part of the city.
Saki rattled over the train tracks that bisect the capital and we passed into West Jackson, another part of the city entirely. The population here is almost completely black, and, according to the Hinds County Economic Development Authority, unemployment in West Jackson is double both the county and state averages. In 2014, Duvall Decker, a local architecture firm, worked alongside neighborhood residents and eighteen Jackson-based organizations to compile a “West Jackson Planning Guidebook” for a section of West Jackson around Jackson State University; according to their findings, residents in the area had a choice of three grocery stores in comparison to sixteen check-cashing businesses, and almost half of the properties were officially vacant. In the past year, the number of grocery stores dropped to just two. On this side of the tracks, Capitol Street—which originates in front of the Old State Capitol on the east side—is a quiet, winding road, flanked by rows of abandoned structures.
Saki’s daughter announced from the backseat that she had to go to the bathroom, and Saki pulled a U-turn. We were just a few minutes from Cooperation Jackson.
In the spring of 2015, Cooperation Jackson moved into the building now dubbed the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development. A group of volunteers set to work renovating the building, a former daycare center, to better fit its new purpose. Pastel murals were painted over and mildewed carpeting ripped out, and a fresh paint job brightened the building’s exterior. The color was the deep green of the kale and collards that would soon populate a cooperatively owned farm in the backyard.
We parked in a long driveway, and I helped Saki unload the children. From the outside, the single-story structure looked like it had been snapped from a strip mall and dropped into its grassy one-acre lot. Saki pressed a doorbell and a young man wearing a lip ring and a light brown cap to hold his dreadlocks opened the door. He led us across a linoleum floor into the cool darkness of the Lumumba Center. Saki and her daughter headed for the bathroom, which had a hand-drawn sign on the door: GENDER IS A UNIVERSE.
The man who had let us in introduced himself as Brandon King. He was another cofounder of Cooperation Jackson and a member of MXGM. Brandon had moved to Jackson a little over a year ago, a month before Chokwe Lumumba died. I would soon learn that, like Brandon and Saki, many of Cooperation Jackson’s twenty cofounders had moved to Jackson from cities outside of Mississippi.
Saki had recently decorated the beige cinder-block walls of the Lumumba Center with photo collages. One featured Chokwe. She showed me the industrial kitchen where the group planned to open a cooperatively owned café called Nubia’s Place. In the center’s biggest room, she pointed to the areas that would eventually hold a stage for open mic nights, seating for the café, and couches. A door led to the wide backyard, where seedlings of cooperatively owned Freedom Farms were pushing upward under the soil.
Typing at a desk in a small office off the main room I recognized Kali Akuno, another founding member of Cooperation Jackson and its apparently tireless de facto spokesperson. He was also Saki’s partner. I’d seen videos of him speaking about their work at conferences around the world. Kali had drafted the public version of the Jackson-Kush Plan and, I would later learn, he had been one of the first to approach Chokwe Lumumba about running for office.
A year after my first visit to the Lumumba Center, Antar would run again for the mayor’s seat. As had been the case for his father’s bids for office and Antar’s previous run in the special election, the campaign’s messaging and platform would be developed with input from members of MXGM. One of his most regularly invoked campaign slogans—“When I become mayor, you become mayor”—would be rooted in the Jackson-Kush Plan’s vision of self-determination and self-governing. In his debates and speeches, Antar would regularly seize opportunities to champion cooperatives as part of the prescription for the city’s economic malaise. He would also mention the Lumumba Center, a place where that work of establishing economic democracy was slowly getting started.
The Jackson-Kush Plan had reached a moment in which it had an established base in the former daycare center on Capitol Street and a charismatic young attorney seeking to offer more support for the plan from inside City Hall. But for something to come of this moment, so long in the making, Antar would need to convince voters that his vision—especially his economic vision—was the one they should vote for at a desperate moment for their city, despite the more familiar solutions competing for the role.
The first big showdown between Jackson’s top mayoral candidates was in March 2017—two months before the primary election and a year after my initial trip to Jackson. (Antar had officially announced his candidacy on May 19, Malcolm X’s birthday, with a press conference on the steps of Jackson’s City Hall, where the assembled crowd had chanted: “Free the land! Free the land! Free the land!”) Grace Inspirations Church, in West Jackson, hosted the forum on a Sunday evening and the roughly two hundred attendees who gathered in the sanctuary were still dressed in their Sunday best. I noticed men in suits with matching ties and pocket squares, and women in long dresses, a few in swooping hats.
It was a welcome occasion for civic sociability and also for indulging in some lofty plans to fix Jackson. The city’s infrastructure problems continued to nose their way into the lives of every Jacksonian. Many of the forum’s attendees had come from houses that were under notices to boil tap water before it was safe to drink; the next day, city officials would announce that water in a large swath of the city would be turned off for forty-eight hours the following weekend in order to replace pipes in a portion of Jackson’s out-of-date water distribution system.
The church’s pastor, Danny Ray Hollins, opened the forum with a word of prayer. As it turned out, it was a prayer for Jackson. “It’s our home,” he said. “It’s a city that we love—a city with a myriad of issues. Problems. Problems not brought about as a result of any one man, or one administration. . . . We have sent out the call! To those who would be mayor! And we’ve invited them here—to church.” His tongue delivered that last word to the room like it was wrapped in silk. “And we’re here to hear them share their vision for this city.”
The five most popular candidates among the sixteen running for the mayor’s seat had been invited to participate in the forum. All five were Democrats, and all five were black. On Grace Inspirations’ altar stage, six empty chairs were arranged in a semicircle. The moderator, Pastor CJ Rhodes, took a seat toward the center and called the candidates to the stage one by one. Along with his brief introductions, he noted each person’s placement in the polls—Antar was in the lead—until a woman of grandmotherly age in one of the front pews called for him to stop it with the polls. “Yes, thank you, ma’am,” Rhodes said, admonished, and followed her directive as he welcomed the last three men.
A poll released a few days after the debate would confirm that Antar stood comfortably in first place. His support was sharply racialized, and despite his overall favorable numbers, he had garnered a net negative impression among the white Jacksonians polled. But the white contingent was small enough and his favorability among black voters was high enough that his lead in the race was a stable one. Brad Chism, a white political analyst in Jackson, declared that his own polling data indicated it was Antar’s race to lose.
Antar’s biggest competition was John Horhn, a veteran state senator. Horhn had run for mayor twice before, and both times he failed to garner enough support to qualify for a runoff. This year, he had refined his argument. “We’re at a point in our city where we’ve got to make sure we get it right the next time,” he said at one point during the forum. “We’re only going to get one more bite at the apple in my opinion.” I’d heard people speak with similar finality about Jackson in recent months (including other references to near-finished apples). They usually meant the same thing: If the city’s finances didn’t take a few steps back from the edge of potential bankruptcy, if crime didn’t abate and the schools didn’t improve their outcomes, Jackson was vulnerable to takeover from the State of Mississippi. Though Horhn presented state takeover as an implicit threat, he also positioned some level of help from the state as Jackson’s last possible saving grace—and himself, with a twenty-four-year tenure in the Senate, as the one person who could broker that salvation.
Another close contender for the likely Democratic primary runoff was Robert Graham, who spent most of his speaking time on litanies of his own experience as Hinds County Supervisor and his thirty-five years as a civilian employee of the Jackson Police Department. He stressed his involvement in a deal to bring a Continental tire plant to the Jackson area, slated to open in 2018 with twenty-five hundred jobs on offer.
Ronnie Crudup Jr. was a long shot, in fourth place. He was the only candidate who didn’t register particularly strong opinions among those polled, in a positive or negative direction. His father, Bishop Ronnie Crudup Sr., is senior pastor of a church serving over three thousand in South Jackson.
Incumbent mayor Tony Yarber was a distant fifth in the polls, the only candidate in the top five with a net negative favorability rating, at -39.2 percent. A perception of mismanagement along with a spate of sexual harassment cases had pulled his reputation into a sharp downward plunge over the course of his three years in office.
In one of his first questions to Antar, Rhodes bored directly into the discomfort that plenty of Jacksonians still felt about the Lumumbas, pointing to the history of the PG-RNA and the sense that Antar’s platform had been born out of some sort of bigger plan—or “agenda,” as the more suspicious tended to put it. “One of the concerns that came up in the last election,” Rhodes said, his eyes on Antar, “was about whether or not, for lack of a better way of saying it, Antar Lumumba is going to be an anti-white mayor, and push away white folks, and gonna bring in nationalists, and it’s going to be Jafrica and all these kinds of things.” Some murmuring and laughter broke out around the room.
“I appreciate you asking that question, Pastor Rhodes,” Lumumba began. In his job as a criminal defense attorney, he said, he worked with many people who don’t look like him, and had plenty of success. But his voice was climbing stairs, building up to something higher. “I’ve been labeled as a radical,” he continued. “My father was labeled as a radical. You were told that he would divide the city and what was demonstrated was something entirely different.” Antar would tell me later that he and the MXGM members helping to run the campaign had made the concerted decision to embrace the loaded “radical” descriptor that had been hurled at his father and at him in his previous campaign. His pace quickened a few steps, riding on its own momentum. “Honestly, when people call me a radical, I take it as a badge of honor. Because Martin Luther King was radical.” Applause spread through the room. “Medgar Evers was radical.” The applause intensified, and so did Antar. “Jesus Christwas radical.” The applause didn’t break, so he spoke louder to be heard. “The reality is that we have to be prepared to be as radical as circumstances dictate we should be. If you look outside these doors and you see a need for a change, then you should all be radical.” I heard shouts of “Amen!” He went on, “And the reality is that we haven’t found ourselves in the condition we’re in because someone has been too radical for us.” He inflected these last few words. “I would argue we haven’t been radical enough.” The applause carried on like an unbroken wave.
The audience’s response made me think about a question that had been posed during Chokwe Lumumba’s campaign: Was it possible for a person to be both a revolutionary and a politician? Throughout the debate, the candidates piled on the Yarber administration’s apparent inaction in fixing the streets, and the mayor’s responses tangled into long paragraphs explaining the technical details that had complicated the solutions. I found myself wondering if the mundane, full-time job of running a city with long-neglected infrastructure could leave any room for helming a revolution. Because Chokwe Lumumba’s tenure was so truncated, it remained an open question.
Still, it was true that the people in the church that afternoon became most animated when Antar shifted from the role of knowledgeable attorney into that of revolutionary. And he didn’t withhold his more progressive ideas—rooted in the Jackson-Kush Plan—for reimagining how economic revitalization could happen in Jackson. “Oftentimes we find ourselves engaged in merely a discussion of how we entice businesses to come here. We have to also consider where there is a need that we can fill, where we can develop the businesses ourselves. And look at cooperative business models where the people who live in the community own the business, and the people who work in that business not only determine what their labor will be, but they have a say-so in what the fruits of the labor will be.”
In addition to being central to the PG-RNA’s new-society ideal, cooperatives had been an important part of other visions for true racial equality in the state. In 1969, in Sunflower County, Mississippi, the voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer helped develop the Freedom Farm Cooperative—the namesake of the beds behind Cooperation Jackson. In her 2014 book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a political economist who researches African-American collective economies, argues that co-ops have existed as a necessary counterweight to this country’s economic violence against black communities from the beginning of slavery here. “There seems to be no period in U.S. history where African Americans were not involved in economic cooperation of some type,” she writes. Cooperatives, though never a critical mass, have offered an alternate mindset, a means of insulating the economic participation of a group pushed out of the dominant system.
Cooperatives are a main tenet of the Jackson-Kush Plan. The framers of this new-society experiment viewed them as a way to help people unlearn the lessons their economy taught them and train them to be democratic in every aspect of their lives. They knew that the individual, foundational work of building buy-in for a whole new type of economy would be even harder than winning an election.
A few days after the mayoral forum at Grace Inspirations Church, I stopped by the Lumumba Center for a class. It was a Wednesday at noon, just in time for that week’s installment of the Economic Democracy Learning Series, led by Kali Akuno. In a large room with a wall of street-facing windows, eight folding tables were arranged in a rectangle. The ten or so attendees took their seats around it with the ease of people who had done this many times before. Saki sat at the front of the room next to Kali, who clicked final preparations into his laptop. Slides lit up a projector screen on the wall behind him as students unwrapped sandwiches, flipped open Styrofoam containers of chicken wings, and forked fruit salad out of Tupperware.
In Kali’s mind, Cooperation Jackson is an experiment; his hypothesis is that living and working in fully democratic communities will change the people involved. One of the experiment’s first steps, he believes, is for people to realize how capitalism has shaped them and to recognize how alternatives could refresh their perspectives.
He picked up on this week’s slide and began. The class was continuing its guided tour through Marx’s Capital. Under discussion today was Marx’s concept of exchange-value. Kali asked if someone would volunteer to read the first slide. After a silence, a woman wearing a green cloth headband over graying dreadlocks and strings of beads around her neck complied. She read:
The exchange value of a commodity is what one receives in exchange for this commodity.
Statement A: One chair is the exchange-value of two pairs of pants.
Statement B: Two pairs of pants are the exchange-value of one chair.
When she had finished reading, her brow didn’t unfurrow and her mouth kept silently working. Kali waited. “How will we, in this new environment we’re creating, fairly determine exchange-value?” the woman asked. She pointed to the woman next to her, half of a young white couple dividing their attention between the front of the classroom and their two small children playing behind them. The young woman was a skilled seamstress. If a seamstress has been developing her skill for twenty years, the woman in the green headband reasoned, a pair of pants she produces would be worth more than one chair, wouldn’t it?
Kali shook his head and turned the question back to her. “Is that just profit in your thinking?”
She considered this and eventually nodded once, her brow still knitted.
Kali continued through the slides. Before moving to Jackson, Kali had worked as a high school teacher and he knew when to slow down, reword something, and expand where it might help. The overriding question he returned to again and again, in different forms, was: See how this capitalist economic system has shaped you when you weren’t looking?
As the class passed its second hour, eyes fell downward. I noticed a glow of cell phones nestled in many laps. It was a clear, sunny day, but through the thick sheets of adhesive window tint lining the windows onto Capitol Street, the view of outside was abstracted, a soupy blue. After an afternoon with this view, the laborious deconstruction of exchange-value made the city outside seem blank and theoretical—like an empty place requesting something to be built in it.
Toward the end of the three-hour class, Kali paused and looked around, noting the man next to me who’d finished his chicken wings and lain his head on the table. Kali acknowledged the denseness of the material and admitted that it had taken him three passes through Capital before he really started to grasp it. He recited the socialist dictum stripped down to its simplest articulation: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. “No democracy has achieved that yet,” he added. It was clear that he didn’t share this anecdote to caution anyone in the room against working toward the achievement. After all, he labored for three hours every Wednesday afternoon to make his lessons understood. The implicit challenge was to figure out a way to do what no one else had done.
Kali had been brought up in Los Angeles during the tumultuous 1970s and ’80s. His parents were active in the black power movement, and he grew up going to the movement’s meetings and reading its literature. Most of his parents’ peers ascribed to a Marxist-socialist orientation. As a young boy, Kali told his mother, in all earnestness, that he wanted to know everything. He read hungrily, and as a teenager he particularly looked forward to packages in the mail from an uncle who wrote for black newspapers and music journals in Toronto. In these publications, he read about people like Maurice Bishop and groups like the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada. His political education came, too, from what was happening around him in L.A. Starting from the early eighties, the crack epidemic pummeled Kali’s neighborhood with a force he didn’t understand. It hit most of the families in his neighborhood, and eventually his own, and its effects were devastating. When Kali saw how, in preparation for the 1984 Olympics, the city cleaned up much of the drug trade, he concluded that they could have stopped the destruction of his community much earlier and had chosen not to. He began to notice a ruthlessness in the various systems around him.
Kali joined MXGM’s Oakland chapter in 1996, just six years after Lumumba had cofounded it. By the time the organization began to discuss plans to stage an experiment in Mississippi, he was MXGM’s national organizer. He moved to Jackson permanently in 2013 to devote his life to the Jackson-Kush Plan. He would go on to serve in Chokwe Lumumba’s administration as its Director of Special Projects and External Funding.
Talking with Kali after the Economic Democracy class, I learned that his thinking has shifted in subtle ways over the last decade, as Jackson’s economic and infrastructure problems have continued to mount. He’s seen that elections can, in his opinion, become a distraction from the real work of transforming society. “I’m sure Antar doesn’t want to be mayor forever,” he said. “So what are we setting up for beyond that? And beyond that, in my mind, is not just making sure we have someone in office for the next fifty years. If that’s the best we can do, then we’ve failed, in my opinion.
“Because I think we’re ultimately trying to get to the point where we’ve changed the rules of society—both formally and informally—where we’ve created a more democratic society, a more equitable society. And if there’s a fully engaged citizenry, then the need for a city council and a mayor starts to become fairly moot.”
I asked him what the movement stood to gain if Antar were indeed elected mayor in the fast-approaching election. After all, MXGM had decided as a body to run Antar as the face of the Jackson-Kush Plan. He pushed back in the metal folding chair and leaned his wide upper body onto the table. “That is a good question,” he said. His head rested heavily in his hand, and his knee bobbed as he thought. “Woo. That’s a good question.” I realized I’d expected he’d have his thoughts on the topic crafted and close at hand, given his involvement both in the campaign and in the building of the Jackson-Kush Plan. He sighed. “Honestly,” he admitted, “I’m a minority voice who didn’t want Antar to run this time.”
Kali’s conception of a successful realization of the plan goes far beyond four years of Antar in the mayor’s office. He imagines People’s Assemblies—the bodies open to all citizens that drive self-government and undergird the fully democratic society described in the Jackson-Kush Plan—coming together to, for example, defy the state’s orders against sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants, and training people in Jackson to protect immigrants from ICE raids. He imagines the creation of an alternative currency in Jackson, so that the city government could use the U.S. dollar to pay off its debts and pay city workers part of their salaries in a “soft” currency to use at the corner grocery. For each part of this vision, the stakes would rise higher with Antar’s election. I had figured that two subsequent electoral losses might have been a fatal blow to the current version of the Jackson-Kush Plan. But now I saw that, if Antar did win, it would be the next four years that would become the high-stakes last chance.
Kali then ticked off Jackson’s problems and listed the municipal operations facing privatization or takeover by the state: the water system, the schools, the whole of downtown. “We’re setting ourselves up to administer the most severe austerity the city’s seen probably since the Civil War. . . . We have to be clear that if we fail, that’s not just MXGM failing, or Chokwe Antar failing. That’s a failure for the left in this country.”
Kali’s fears are not without precedent. In a 1992 article, “Black Mayors: A Historical Assessment,” historian Roger Biles explained a trend: Simultaneous with the changing laws and demographic shifts that finally made possible the election of black mayors in major cities around the United States, white flight and the decline of industry were draining those cities’ wealth and resources. These factors conspired to make black mayoral victories, as Biles quotes from H. Paul Friesema, “a hollow prize.” Biles writes:
As the tax base available to big city governments shrank, the same could not be said of the demand for public services. Rising costs for welfare, law enforcement, and maintenance of an aging infrastructure exacerbated the problems awaiting neophyte black mayors. An embattled Kenneth Gibson, mayor of Newark, concluded resignedly: “Progress is maintaining the status quo.”
Biles, who is completing a book on Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, told me that the hollow-prize problem persists to this day. The problem is most pointedly felt, he observed, by leaders who come into the mayor’s office on a wave of expectations that are, perhaps, “unrealistically high.”
During Chokwe Lumumba’s truncated term, the combination of Jackson’s tight municipal resources and massively expensive problems created rifts within his administration. The Environmental Protection Agency had served the city with a consent decree in 2012 to force it to fix the antiquated sewage system that was spilling into the Pearl River. A 2013 estimate put the cost of the infrastructure fix at around $1 billion. Infighting festered over how to raise the revenue. Eventually, the city increased water rates and passed a 1 percent sales tax—a regressive tax, in that it could burden low-income Jacksonians more than high-income earners. In a report reflecting on Chokwe’s eight-month tenure, Kali wrote: “The most critical lesson we learned is that our practice has to be as sound as our theory. While in office, our practice of governance did not always equate to our previous work of building an alternative base of political power rooted in a democratic mass movement.” The very real problem of insufficient resources highlighted a central rub inherent in the Lumumba administration: Were they aiming to capably govern a city, or to altogether reimagine it? Insiders didn’t agree on the answer.
In the week leading up to the primary election on Tuesday, May 2, Jackson was crackling with the full focus of the competing campaigns. Yard signs bearing the faces of the main candidates—Lumumba, Horhn, Graham, and Yarber—clustered in abandoned lots like weeds competing for sunlight. It was the primary, not the general election in early June, that came freighted with the suspense of determining the city’s next mayor. In the thoroughly blue city, a Democratic candidate was guaranteed to win the final race, and the only serious contenders fell on that side of the ballot. Antar ran in a crowded field of nine Democratic candidates, and pollster Brad Chism was certain that their support would be too divided for any one person to earn more than 50 percent of the vote. A runoff between the two top Democratic candidates was all but inevitable. By the weekend the local papers had unveiled their endorsements like the sharing of long-guarded secrets. All three publications endorsed Lumumba, even the long-running, conservative-leaning daily the Clarion-Ledger.
On Saturday morning, I stopped by Cooperation Jackson, where I found Brandon King in the backyard, working on Freedom Farms. From the gate, I saw him near the far edge of the fence, plunging a hoe into the ground, alone. When he noticed me approaching, he rested his hoe in the soil and smiled a hello. He was dressed like a farmer, but one who had gone to art school. Layers of necklaces strung on leather bands rested their shells and stones above his sternum, and a solid tattoo band wrapped around his left arm, opening into the shape of a star on his elbow.
The day hadn’t yet unleashed its full heat, but Brandon was sweating from the work of turning a grassy patch into a new bed. He indicated another fifteen feet along the fence and told me it would be a bed for sweet peas. In the grass beside us lay a coil of chain-link fencing that he planned to install against the wooden fence so the pea shoots could climb and curl their way up toward the sun.
“How’s it going?” I asked, lifting my hands to indicate, how’s it all going—the farming, but also the mounting of the new society experiment which had brought him here to Jackson. Brandon grabbed the hoe, lifted it high, and drove it down into the soil. He knew what I meant, and he answered for all of it. “Oh, you know me!” He let out a laugh, tinged with exasperation. “I’m impatient.”
In our conversations over the previous year, Brandon had never struck me as impatient. His voice had a soft edge of something like shyness, and he always revealed a willingness to be deeply introspective and an ability to rest in the contradictions he noticed in himself, in other people, and in circumstances.
Brandon had lived in New York before moving south, and he had moved to Jackson to live in the City of the Future that Chokwe Lumumba had described. He’d never stopped wanting to live in that place. Here in the backyard, perspiring as he lifted and pulled his hoe, he was still working toward it.
Brandon’s mother was one of the first black women to work as a machinist in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard near Chesapeake, Virginia, the town where Brandon and his brothers had grown up. She frequently confronted racism and sexism on the job. At home, she introduced her children to radical black thinkers like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. When Brandon was sixteen, she put down those books in favor of a Bible and became a devout Christian. He picked up her books and fell deeper into them. He respected his mother, but he didn’t want her life. The nine-to-five grind was anathema to him. In every conversation I had with Brandon, he repeated his insistence that he hopes to never become a “status quo manager,” like an incantation that can keep that life away. He fears the numbness, the existential stuckness—and the resigned acceptance of society the way it is
During college—Brandon studied sociology and art at Hampton University in Virginia—he took two trips to New Orleans to provide support for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. While there, he met members of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. After graduating, he moved to New York to work as a union organizer and DJ, and he joined the local MXGM chapter. In the three years since Brandon had moved to Mississippi, the Jackson-Kush Plan had seen some progress—in the founding of Cooperation Jackson, for example, and the securing of the land on which we stood—but it had also slammed up against obstacles. Nubia’s Place had struggled to obtain the food license necessary to serve food out of its space in the former daycare center, though it had been catering for local organizations and events for two years. City worker furloughs, instituted under Mayor Yarber to save the city from bankruptcy, have made for a lean city staff and the resulting interminable wait times for securing business licenses.
In December 2016, Brandon, Kali, Saki, Antar, and Rukia traveled to Barcelona to observe, in a more fully developed form, elements of the society they were working toward in Jackson. Barcelona’s deputy mayor took them on a tour of the city’s cooperatives, including stops at a cooperatively owned bar and a cooperatively owned bookstore. They also visited the Green Fab Lab, a place to tinker and research new ways to produce renewable energy and use 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other machines to make all manner of stuff. It was a chance for Brandon and the others to see an on-the-ground, functioning version of some of the plans struggling to move past dream-stage in Jackson.
A boarded-up building across the street from the Lumumba Center was meant to be the location of Jackson’s own Fabrication Laboratory, where collectively owned 3-D printers and other machines would turn out items the community needs: everything from car chassis, piping, copper wire, and insulation for houses, to dishware and utensils for Nubia’s Place. But Cooperation Jackson’s purchase of the building was being held back by legal snafus, and the organization was struggling to raise the money for the 3-D printer and other technology. A fifteen-minute walk away on Ewing Street, Cooperation Jackson owned a grassy lot where Brandon pictured an affordable eco-village, with housing built in the Fab Lab and a collection of cooperatively tended farms. The first step was establishing the urban farm that would provide food to residents. But that work had been held back, too. The empty lot had long been used as a dumping ground, and the soil was poisoned with the old paint, garbage, and construction debris of the society Brandon is trying to move away from.
On the eve of Jackson’s mayoral primary, Brandon was suffering these various mundane hindrances pointedly. It was all just moving so slowly, and the new society they were building wasn’t feeling sufficiently set apart from the old one. “I didn’t move here to help build a bunch of big cooperative businesses,” he said. “When are we going to break off and do our own thing?” He leaned on his hoe, and the dreams tumbled from him: When will we be making and distributing products from the Fab Lab? When will we have a self-feeding network of cooperatives? When will we have an alternative currency mediating our new economy?
I told Brandon I’d help with the farming while we talked, and he grabbed another hoe. I asked if he’d been helping with Antar’s campaign. A bit, he said. “But I’m not going to vote,” he added. When I didn’t hide my surprise, he explained that he didn’t want to participate in what he considered to be an “illegitimate system.” While Kali was anxious about the pressure the election could impose, Brandon was skeptical of the entire enterprise. A system relying on People’s Assemblies to select the next mayor, he offered, would do a better job of bringing more voices and perspectives into the democratic process.
A few hours later, we put away the gardening equipment and shifted to loading subwoofers, folding tables, and eight crates full of records into Brandon’s pickup truck. He had been asked to DJ a community cookout at Antar’s campaign headquarters that afternoon. The parking lot in front of the A&D Tax Services office that housed the campaign’s daily operations was taken over by a bouncy castle, grills, and tables of food. Antar and Ebony moved among their friends and supporters, laughing and teasing. They seemed eager and excited about the potential that the next few days would usher in. Under fast-moving clouds, dozens of Jacksonians mingled in the lot, holding their plates of grilled meat and fresh fruit, or they sat in folding chairs along the building’s front windows. I watched people form lines to do the Cha Cha Slide in front of the table where Brandon stood, lining up his tracks. It wasn’t the work of new-society building, but it might turn out to be related.
Three days later, Chokwe Antar won ten thousand more votes in the primary than his father had. His 55 percent support in the Democratic primary meant there was no need for a runoff in a Jackson mayoral race for the first time in twelve years. In the general election the next month, he secured 93 percent of voters’ support.
Around the country, pockets of attention snapped toward this decisive win of the young mayoral candidate running on a plan to establish a society with socialist roots in the Deep South. Antar’s landslide primary win came on the heels of President Trump’s one-hundred-day mark. A post-election analysis released by Millsaps College and Chism Strategies noted that the “Trump Factor” might have helped mushroom support for Antar late in the race: “To the extent undecided voters wanted to express a protest vote against the status quo, Lumumba was that vessel.”
Antar indicated on a national stage a willingness to accept the role when, in early June, he appeared as a speaker at the People’s Summit in Chicago alongside Bernie Sanders, author Naomi Klein, and environmental activist Bill McKibben. With his speech, Antar made headlines in Jackson and in a smattering of national publications by declaring that his administration would make the capital of Mississippi “the most radical city on the planet.” He called for other cities to join him, name-checking Washington, D.C.; Gary, Indiana; and Chicago.
Inauguration Day was July 3, a hot and sunny Monday in Jackson. Museums and city offices were closed for Independence Day. The people who streamed into one of downtown’s newest structures, the hulking Jackson Convention Complex, for the swearing-in ceremony wore lumumba-for-mayor t-shirts, suits, dashikis, and sundresses. After he had lain his hand on a Bible and sworn to protect the constitutions of the United States and Mississippi, Chokwe Antar Lumumba took to the podium and asked the hundreds of Jacksonians present to look past the inevitability of the present society with him.
“This is the building of the new society,” he said, adding later: “For so long Mississippi has been known as the symbol of limits. It has been known as a haven for oppression, for some of the most horrible suffering in the history of the world. So it is only fitting that we should become the leaders of that change.”
The inaugural address was an opportunity to posit a possible future, and Antar embraced it. What would happen next with Jackson’s roads and water systems, with the People’s Assemblies, with the cooperatives and the Fab Lab, wasn’t certain. But on this Inauguration Day just before Independence Day, Antar was helping a city and a country to see past the present, and that, in itself, was radical.
“Free the land!” he called out three times as he concluded his address, raising his right fist high above the rose boutonniere pinned to his lapel.
“Free the land!” the city of Jackson called back to him.
This piece has been supported by Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit devoted to covering inequality in America.