JACKSON, Miss. — On a chilly Friday morning in March, a couple of days after a winter storm swept through the city, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba strode into a parking lot behind city hall, fist-bumped assembled members of the fire department and made his way to a clear podium set in front of four red firetrucks. The weather felt more like London than Mississippi, and Lumumba dressed the part: skinny navy pants, brown houndstooth jacket and matching vest, with beige monk-strap shoes.
It had been a rough several weeks for the city. The previous month, a different, more disastrous winter storm had hit Jackson, leaving many of the city’s nearly 170,000 residents stranded without water for weeks. Thousands of residents lost power, too. It took more than four weeks for the city to lift the boil water advisory for all residents. This morning, however, Lumumba had a more pleasant task: “christening” the city’s new firetrucks, which he called symbols that “represent the protection of life and property.”
After a short prayer from a local pastor, the city fire chief picked up a dusty red hose that snaked from a water truck in the back of the parking lot, aimed it squarely at the shiny red fire engines, readied himself for a gush of water, and then, well, nothing. The water didn’t come out.
In one sense, the moment seemed fitting, even predictable, for Jackson. Economically, the city has been in a long, slow decline for decades, set in motion in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy sent federal troops to the University of Mississippi in Oxford to force the school to admit a Black student named James Meredith. White residents began moving out of Jackson to avoid forced integration; eventually, wealthier Black residents moved out too, leaving a shrinking city where today nearly a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line.
For the mayor in the perfectly tailored outfit, though, the failure of those hoses represents a kind of test. Four years ago, Lumumba swept into office on a tide of rhetoric and ambition that drew national attention. He laid out an expansive vision of how Jackson could become a model for the country, promising to use City Hall to deliver not just better services, but a whole menu of new progressive ideas like universal basic income, co-operative businesses and alternatives to policing. He talked about replacing abandoned lots with urban farms. And in a city that is 82 percent Black — a higher rate than any other big city in the country — he framed his promises in elevated, historical terms, promising to rewrite the story of race and commerce in the region from one of exploitation to one of empowerment. He talked about fixing the potholes — a big topic of conversation here — not just as road projects but as a way to end “cycles of humiliation,” so being Black doesn’t mean having to endure torn-up roads and bad water.
He promised, in fact, to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.”
Lumumba’s policy ideas wouldn’t sound out of place in Austin or Seattle, which have large tax bases and where wealthy residents have long since displaced low-income ones. In Jackson, though, the problems are so basic and so deep, the city so poor, that Lumumba’s radical vision has felt, from the beginning, particularly audacious. It made him perhaps the highest-profile member of a new generation of Black mayors in the South combining progressive policy with social justice and civil rights.
Now as Lumumba, who recently turned 38, runs for his second term, even he acknowledges he hasn’t succeeded in achieving his vision. Jackson doesn’t have a widespread UBI program, a transformed police department or those co-operative businesses. He’s spent more time bailing the city out of its problems than forging new paths. Meanwhile, other cities have started embracing policies that put them in the “radical” camp: Evanston, Ill., just created the country’s first reparations program to promote home ownership among Black residents; major cities have cut police budgets in the wake of progressive calls to end police brutality, while Jackson boosted its police budget last year. And dozens of cities have increased the minimum wage to $15 per hour, while Jackson is still bound by the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
“I wouldn’t call us the most radical city to date,” Lumumba said over the phone in late February, when the city was still in the grip of its most recent water crisis.
There are a lot of reasons he has struggled. There’s the slog of getting enough money to do the most basic things in a city with a limited tax base. Lumumba’s bravado and inexperience have rubbed some in Jackson’s Democratic establishment the wrong way. A mayor who embraces Bernie Sanders-style progressivism isn’t what Jackson needs, Lumumba’s critics say. The city also faces a majority-Republican, majority-white state government that hasn’t much helped with the funding Jackson desperately needs. Meanwhile, the city has been hit with crisis after crisis, including floods, freezes and the pandemic.
Lumumba still wants to address Jackson’s problems — crime, poverty and, yes, potholes. His goals are as much about policy as process; he has worked to include residents in decisions about, say, which roads get paved first. And, even after a rocky four years, voters seem likely give Lumumba another chance. He is favored in the Democratic primary on April 6, which is seen as the real test in heavily Democratic Jackson.
If he can shift the fortunes of this Southern, majority-Black city, Lumumba might also be able to give the country’s progressive movement a boost in the conservative South, and show that these policies might work not just in places with big companies and gentrified downtowns, but in Mississippi, too. First, though, he has show that being radical isn’t just a good campaign line — it also has to fix the potholes, clean up the water and end the nightly staccato of gunshots.
Lumumba says he decided to run for mayor on February 25, 2014 — the day his father, who then served as mayor of Jackson himself, died of a heart attack.
Lumumba’s father, Chokwe Lumumba, was a radical leader in his own right. Born and raised in Detroit, he became enamored with Jackson after he traveled there as a leader with the Republic of New Afrika, a Black separatist group that supported federal reparations and the creation of a majority-Black country in the South. He had changed his name to Chokwe Lumumba from Edwin Finley Taliaferro in the 1960s — Chokwe after an African tribe that had long resisted the slave trade and Lumumba after the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba.
Eventually, he moved his family, including the younger Lumumba, who goes by his middle name, Antar, to Jackson. The elder Lumumba practiced criminal defense and civil rights law, even representing rapper Tupac Shakur, and worked as an activist continuing to lobby for reparations and setting up a community center in Mississippi’s capital city. At some point, he decided he could do more inside the political system than outside it. At first, he served on Jackson’s city council; then he became mayor in 2013. He died after just eight months in office, but not before laying the groundwork for the younger Lumumba’s vision.
At the time, Lumumba was working at his father’s law practice. He had graduated from law school at Texas Southern University shortly before marrying his wife, Ebony, whom he met in kindergarten in North Jackson. Despite his father’s work, Lumumba had been skeptical of politics. “I wanted no part of it,” he said during an interview in his office in mid-March.
The day of his father’s death, he says, he prayed to God to put his father’s spirit in him. Soon, he decided to run for mayor, despite having no political experience. He lost a special election to replace his father in 2014. Then, he decisively won the regular election three years later, avoiding a runoff in a crowded Democratic primary field and winning the general election with more than 90 percent of the vote.
Lumumba’s older sister, Rukia, who moved to Jackson from New York to run her brother’s campaign in 2016, told me she was surprised her brother, who had never shown an interest in elected office, ended up running. Even though he ended up following his father’s career path, Rukia, who now runs a nonprofit in Jackson, said Lumumba in some ways bears more of a resemblance to their late mother, Nubia, an outgoing and stylish flight attendant who wore high heels every day. Both parents, however, steeped their children in the work of civil rights.
Early in his mayoralty, Lumumba had a chant he would recite during rallies: “Free the land,” “Free the land,” “Free the land,” with the crowd chanting the words back. He would end the call and response with: “By any means necessary.” It was the Republic of New Afrika’s secessionist slogan, one that Lumumba’s father also used when he spoke. Today, the hallway leading to Lumumba’s office is lined with portraits of civil rights icons: Patrice Lumumba, Medgar Evers, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer. Lumumba calls it Liberation Row.
For Lumumba — and other Black mayors in the South — progressive change has its roots in local organizing, in focusing on the priorities of low-income Black residents who are often left out of decision-making processes. It’s a sort of modern-day take on the Republic of New Afrika’s philosophy — self-governance without seccession.
Lumumba knew such ideals would be hard to achieve in a cash-strapped city, where the budget requires the approval of the city council and the state is reluctant to meet city funding needs. Lumumba told me he anticipated the job would be “a tremendous challenge.” But he says he ran because he wanted to be the person who finally fixed the city’s deep problems: “It’s about building, or dealing with, the large part of the glacier that’s under the water before you begin to see what’s on top.”
As mayor, Lumumba has managed to take care of some of the basic issues that have bogged down Jackson for decades. He has cleaned up and digitized the city’s financial files; until recently the files were only available in hard copy in manilla folders in City Hall. He’s fended off a state takeover of Jackson’s school system. He’s brought grants to Jackson like one from Mike Bloomberg to use art to spark a discussion around food security and one from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that focuses on early childhood education.
In 2020, Lumumba won a $90 million lawsuit against Siemens. The city had hired the multinational company to repair Jackson’s sewers and update its water billing system, but it failed to do either. Jackson has been under an EPA consent decree for almost a decade because wastewater plants aren’t properly treating its water. As a result of the problems with Siemens, many residents didn’t get water bills for years, and when the bills finally arrived, they included hundreds or thousands of dollars of back payment. Lumumba also negotiated an end to a furlough for city workers, raised their pay by 2 percent, and the city also now covers their health insurance premiums.
The pandemic has paused some of his efforts to make municipal government more accountable, like trying to get citizens involved in crafting the city budget. According to this sister, he held just one “people’s assembly” about the budgeting process, in 2019, before Covid struck.
“I can’t just blame Mayor Lumumba for not being able to create miracles and get things running as fast,” says Brenda Scott, president of a union that represents Mississippi’s public workers.
One of the biggest complaints about Lumumba’s term is crime. As in cities across the country, violent crime has spiked in Jackson during the pandemic. Last year, the city saw 128 homicides, a record, according to WLBT, a local news station. In a majority-Black city, and a state where Black people are disproportionately imprisoned, the question of what to do about the spike has created deep tension between Lumumba — who has advocated for attacking the root causes of crime by boosting mental health services, youth programs and economic development — and several Black city council members who want to pursue a more law-and-order approach.
While Lumumba’s ideas haven’t gotten much traction, he managed to update the city’s use-of-force policy, including banning chokeholds. After pressure from local media, he also is now publicly naming officers who shoot or kill people in Jackson. Still, even Lumumba agrees that the national movement to defund the police doesn’t apply in a city with an already vastly underfunded police department. Last year, the city council approved a budget that raised police pay to recruit new officers, a move that upset local activists.
When it comes to Jackson’s roads, Lumumba has had limited success as well. He has estimated that it would cost $2 billion just to replace the city’s torn-up roads and fix its century-old water pipes and sewers. But Jackson’s tax base has been declining for years. Meanwhile, state lawmakers killed a local 1 percent sales tax to fix Jackson’s infrastructure, even though the city council approved the tax and Lumumba has been lobbying state leaders for it; the Mississippi legislature is required to approve such tax increases in the state. A federal infrastructure bill would help, of course, but Lumumba has no control of that.
“Making sustainable models work in municipal government is the bedrock of the movement,” says Larry Cohen, chairman of the Bernie Sanders-affiliated progressive group Our Revolution, which endorsed Lumumba the first time he ran and continues to support him. “The concern is where do you get investment? … Otherwise it becomes an almost impossible challenge.”
Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Tate Reeves says he and Lumumba have a good working relationship. But Reeves says the state already invests plenty in Jackson, and that it’s up to the city to better manage its finances. “We want to be helpful. We want to do our part,” Reeves said in an interview at the governor’s mansion. He also said the city should fix its water billing issues before raising taxes: “They understand now that they have to get that fixed long before the request of asking other taxpayers throughout the state or other taxpayers throughout the nation to bail out the Jackson water system.”
Many in Jackson’s Democratic leadership have been frustrated not just by Lumumba’s vision, but by his youth, his brashness, his attitude, his confidence (or arrogance, depending whom you ask), his attempts to circumvent them, his casting them aside.
Last year, for example, Democratic presidential hopefuls sought out Lumumba as a key endorsement in the 2020 primary. In February, Lumumba held what he called a “people’s caucus,” where representatives from various campaigns spoke in Jackson, and attendees voted on the candidates. The 100 or so attendees, according to Mississippi Today, overwhelmingly voted for Sanders. Days later, Lumumba endorsed the Vermont senator. While it might have looked like Lumumba was channeling the views of his constituents, the residents of Hinds County, which includes Jackson, ended up voting overwhelming for Joe Biden in the primary. Democratic lawmakers in Jackson and in other Southern cities — like Birmingham’s Randall Woodfin, who also was supported by Our Revolution — endorsed Biden, too.
The process showed that Lumumba is out of step with Jackson, says city councilperson and pastor Aaron Banks, who served as the elder Lumumba’s constituent services representative. “When it comes to a far-left approach, I don’t think that’s the best way for the city of Jackson,” says Banks, pointing out that Mississippi is still a very Republican state. “If the city is going to thrive and have success, we have to find that road in the middle.”
Lumumba pushes back, pointing out that the Mississippi primary took place a week after Super Tuesday, by which point Biden’s win was all but certain. He also stands by the process, which he said gave residents a chance to hear candidates’ platforms.
Lumumba has also earned the ire of many local Black contractors, a group of powerful enemies. Marcus Wallace, who is mayor of Edwards, a small town west of Jackson, owns a construction company that has done business with previous mayors. A few years ago, Wallace invested $200,000 in equipment to fix potholes in Jackson, but he told me he hasn’t gotten any business from the current mayor. Driving around downtown Jackson on a Saturday morning, Wallace pointed out potholes and cracked city streets that Lumumba hadn’t gotten around to fixing. He argues that Lumumba has focused on fixing highly visible streets but has neglected those where poor Black residents live.
“This administration does a lot of grandstanding,” Wallace says.
He told me he and other local construction business owners tried to recruit more candidates to jump into the mayor’s race, but few were interested in challenging Lumumba.
Banks, the councilperson, says Lumumba’s father was different — he knew how to build support for his ideas, to take his vision and make it relatable to people. The first thing the elder Lumumba did when he became mayor was work with the city council and state legislature to push through a 1 percent sales tax to help repair the city’s infrastructure. More than 90 percent of city residents approved the tax, which also had the support of Jackson’s business community.
“Lumumba’s dad — he was practical, wise,” Banks says. “He never thought he knew it all.”
Lumumba pushes back, saying he stopped giving city business to some local contractors who he says had been pocketing city funds without doing the work, though he didn’t mention Wallace or any other companies by name. (And Wallace told me he has always done the work for which he’s paid.) Lumumba argues that veteran local officials are put off by his ideas and youth — a challenge that he says fellow Black Southern mayors like Woodfin in Birmingham or Steven Reed in Montgomery, Ala., have also faced.
“There’s a new generation coming forward,” Lumumba says. “And some people see that as a threat.”
On the same day as the firetruck christening, a truck loaded with bottles of drinking water arrived at the parking lot of Forest Hill High School shortly after 8 a.m. The cars started pulling up about 20 minutes later, even before the arrival of the youth volunteers.
It was a month earlier, in mid-February, that the big winter storm had battered the city’s ailing infrastructure, leaving residents and businesses without water. The city and nonprofit groups spent a month distributing both drinking water and water to flush toilets, while working to rebuild water pressure across Jackson. This Friday morning event, more than 30 days after residents first lost water, was one of the last water distributions in the city.
Even though there’s no longer an official boil water advisory, many residents here still don’t trust the city’s water. Not Veronica Thomas, who was picking up water for the fifth time, for her and her four kids. Not Byron Watts, who was picking up water for an elderly neighbor; he and his wife can afford to buy bottled water to drink and brush their teeth, and they boil tap water to wash their dishes. Not Lorean Young, a retiree who is slowly regaining water pressure in her house. Not Lisa Hunt, who still boils her drinking water.
But none of these residents blamed Lumumba for the city’s problems. In fact, no one I spoke with thinks he’s all that radical, or frankly even cares. They say he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances. Some told me he’s doing a great job, mostly because they finally have seen a specific potholed road get paved. Lumumba largely has avoided scandals that have plagued his predecessors. The Jackson residents I spoke with said they like his style and his vision. They all planned to vote for him.
“I know it’s not his fault,” Hunt says. “It was this way before he got here.”
Jackson has had seven mayors since 1997, when Harvey Johnson Jr. was elected as the city’s first Black mayor. Only Johnson has served more than more one term. Some say that the job is maybe the worst in Mississippi politics because the problems are so deep, the opposition so fierce. Even Lumumba’s detractors argue that some stability would be good for Jackson. And his political supporters say he’s still learning the job and figuring out how to win support from the city council.
“He’s a work in progress,” says Democratic state Sen. Hillman Frazier, whose district includes parts of Jackson. Frazier’s son and Lumumba played Little League and basketball together. “He has a very good heart. It takes discipline to work through the problems,” he says.
Lumumba faces two candidates in the Democratic primary, Patty Patterson, a community activist, and Ken Wilson, a former firefighter. Neither has the profile, funding or experience Lumumba does. Because Jackson is majority-Democratic, if Lumumba wins the primary, he’ll most likely win the general election on June 8. Of course, as with Stockton’s progressive mayor, Michael Tubbs, an upset is always possible. National admiration doesn’t necessary translate to local success. Republicans running in the race argue Jackson needs to strengthen law enforcement, bring in charter schools and cut taxes to attract businesses.
More recently, Lumumba has been focused on making a concrete case for his reelection. “I’m confronted by residents, and they say, as I’m talking about those issues — whether it’s self-determination, human rights, discrimination or what have you — the resident says, ‘Yeah, that’s good young brother, but how are you gonna fix that pothole in the middle of my street?’” Lumumba says. “As we struggle to address those material benefits, those material issues, we ultimately can make a connection to some of the larger issues that that we suffer from, and not to get too long-winded.”
He hasn’t let go of his loftier vision. He is working to set up a program to support a city-funded UBI program. Another of Lumumba’s big goals for his second term is to transform the historically Black neighborhood on Farish Street into a zone of cooperative-owned businesses, something he hasn’t been able to get done these past four years. Jackson, which calls itself the City With Soul, is filled with blues clubs, good food and museums, plus universities and hospitals. The city has tried — and failed — for decades to revitalize the Farish Street area, but Lumumba believes that including more local input will finally kickstart development.
If he wins reelection, Lumumba won’t say if he will run for a third term or step down. He won’t admit if being Jackson’s mayor is the first step toward a longer statewide or national political career, or toward the long-shot goal of turning Mississippi blue. But he knows if he has any chance of staying in office, he has to prove he can fix Jackson’s problems first.
“I’m thinking about filling potholes right now,” he said when asked if he plans to run for Congress or governor. “That’s what I’m thinking about.”