Chokwe Lumumba: From 'Radical' To 'Revolutionary'

Jackson Mississippi Mayor Chokwe Lumumba passed away this week. Host Michel Martin learns more about the civil rights attorney and the activists he mentored.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, we'd like to note the passing of the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Lumumba. He died Tuesday at the age of 66. He'd been in office less than a year, but his election itself by a decisive margin in a conservative part of the country was a significant accomplishment in itself after his long career as an activist and attorney in the Black Power Movement. He came to national attention in 2011 for persuading former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour to release the Scott sisters - two black women who had been serving life sentences after being convicted of an $11 armed robbery. He also once represented the late-rapper Tupac Shakur. We wanted to hear more about Mayor Lumumba so we've called Dream Hampton. She is a writer, filmmaker and consultant at colorofchange.org. And Mayor Lumumba was her mentor. Welcome to the program. And we're so sorry for your loss.

DREAM HAMPTON: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: Some tributes called Mayor Lumumba the most revolutionary mayor in the U.S. Why do people say that?

HAMPTON: Because he was. And the ideas that he had around governing in terms of shifting to electoral politics shouldn't be that revolutionary. They were really about direct participatory government and engagement in that kind of government. He, for instance, got elected because his peoples forums, which he had every three months as a councilman, were so popular. The people of Jackson just didn't have experience with having the kind of direct communication and then results from that communication, those forums in their city. They didn't have that kind of experience of open forum and participatory democracy.

MARTIN: You know, he was born in Detroit, and he moved to Mississippi in the 1970s as part of the Republic of New Africa Organization. And part of that group's goal was to start an independent majority black government in the southeastern US. Did that history come up in his campaign?

HAMPTON: I'm sure that his opponents absolutely tried to weaponize that against him. But I don't think that the people of Jackson, Mississippi who had their own legacy of resistance and struggle - of course Medgar Evers comes from Jackson, Mississippi - and I don't think that they were turned off by that. In fact, they were encouraged by his willingness to be principled and to kind of migrate some of those same ideas of self-determination into, again, this really direct kind of participatory government in Jackson.

MARTIN: Well, talk a little bit about some of his other legacies. I mean, you are part of his legacy in that he was a mentor to you. Could you talk a little bit about some of his other activism around the country or the ways in which he influenced other activists.

HAMPTON: Well, absolutely. After Malcom X and Martin Luther King are assassinated, a lot of people who'd been active in the civil rights movement, as Chokwe had, became far more radicalized in - and, of course, the black power movement, the black liberation movement. This is his legacy. This is who he was. But by the '80s and the '90s, he realized that there were new problems that needed to be addressed in new ways. And that kind of adaptability isn't necessarily seen in his comrades from that era.

He founded the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. I was a founding member of the New York chapter of that organization. In New York, we really worked and pushed back against the brutality of the New York Police Department and the consistent kind of, you know, cases that we were dealing with. And all of that was with the support of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. They taught us how to organize. They taught us how to not just be reactionary, how to get the community involved in things like cop watch. And all of that is a part of his legacy.

MARTIN: How will you remember him?

HAMPTON: Oh, I'll remember him as so accessible. He was one of the most brilliant minds that we had as an attorney, as an organizer, as a leader. He listened to us all. I mean, his cell phone number is in all of our phones no matter, you know, who you were in the organization. I'll miss him so.

MARTIN: What do you think it says that a person who's - was considered so outside of the - radical, let's just say, at one point, and which - you know, which is not - radical is not always a term of endearment, right, particularly politically. Then at, you know, at a certain point in his career became the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. I mean, what do you think the story of his life tells us?

HAMPTON: Well, I think that some of the white leaders of Mississippi would be considered radical, too, just on the other side. But I think that, like Malcolm, Chokwe's is a story of evolution. He really embraced electoral politics later in his life and really saw the value in participating within the system and changing it with a mandate from the people.

MARTIN: Dream Hampton is a writer, filmmaker and consultant at colorofchange.org. She was kind enough to join us from NPR West to remember Chokwe Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. He died on Tuesday at the age of 66. Dream Hampton, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HAMPTON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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