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Why the Left Should Look to Jackson, Mississippi
Posted on May 21, 2014
By Michael Siegel
A new political and economic model is emerging, and it is not appearing where we might suspect it would. In the heart of the South, in a city named after one of the most racist presidents in United States history, in a landscape that resembles parts of Detroit and other decaying industrial centers, an impressive intergenerational collection of community organizers and activists have launched a bold program to empower a black working-class community that 21st -century capitalism has left behind.
In the last two months, I have traveled twice to Jackson, Miss., first for the memorial of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, and most recently, between May 2 and 4, for the Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference held at Jackson State University. On both occasions, I have been struck by the amazing individuals and families who have dedicated themselves to developing economic democracy in Jackson.
A Black Revolutionary Mayor in the Heart of the South
Jackson Rising is the brainchild of a coalition of local and national political forces, including the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), the Jackson People’s Assembly and Lumumba’s office. Part of the initial vision was for the conference to catalyze some of the mayor’s economic initiatives, including the goal of helping local workers win government contracts. Unfortunately Lumumba, who won election by an overwhelming majority in June, held office for only a brief period before dying Feb. 25 of unexplained causes.
That Lumumba won the election at all is a testament to his sustained radical human rights work and to the group of community organizers he worked with over many years. Even during his campaign for mayor, Lumumba made no apologies for his revolutionary background, including his commitment to the New Afrikan Peoples Organization (NAPO) and its claim to a homeland in the predominantly black regions of the South (described as the “Kush”), including broad swaths of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Lumumba’s history also included decades of experience as a civil rights and criminal defense attorney, with past clients including freedom fighters and political prisoners such as Mutulu Shakur, Geronimo Pratt and Assata Shakur.
Despite his radical background, Lumumba was embraced by the people of Jackson, where he had long been an active community advocate and youth mentor. Lumumba and MXGM also utilized innovative organizing tactics to activate the local population. They went door to door to recruit participants for the Jackson People’s Assembly, an independent formation that began as a response to Hurricane Katrina. The Assembly now meets quarterly to discuss community concerns and debate issues including participation in the U.S. Census and the curriculum in the Jackson Public Schools. Hundreds of residents have participated in the Assembly, and locals who are unaffiliated with Lumumba or MXGM lead working committees on topics such as economic development, education and public safety.
Perhaps even more important than his impressive history and tactics, however, the conditions on the ground provided the opportunity for Lumumba because the large community of poor and working people in Jackson truly need a radical politics. As I learned in an MXGM workshop at the Jackson Rising conference, the city is 85 percent black, the student body of its public schools is 98 percent black and the surrounding Hinds County is 75 percent black, yet out of the total of approximately $1 billion of annual public expenditures in the region, only 5 percent goes to black employees and black-owned businesses. The vast majority of government contracts are awarded to businesses outside of Jackson and even outside the state.
Lumumba’s administration promised to address entrenched economic inequity through a new approach to government spending. One of the mayor’s key initiatives was to secure a billion-dollar bond measure to rebuild Jackson’s infrastructure, including repairs to roads, water lines and sewage facilities. And although the passage of a sales tax increase was not a revolutionary act standing alone, Lumumba’s goal for the use of the funds was to incubate local worker cooperatives that could win contracts to rebuild the city.
Cooperative Enterprise as a Vehicle for Economic Self-Determination
The South is often derided as a place of destitute poverty, but the Lumumba administration was acutely aware of the tremendous wealth in the region. Today the South, standing alone, would constitute the fourth largest economy in the world. International capital has recognized this fact, and multinational corporations including Siemens and Nissan are expanding in Mississippi. The challenge for a progressive local government is to ensure that the outside investment does not lead to a drain of local resources.
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