Jackson, Mississippi Mourns Mayor Chokwe Lumumba

William Widmer for The New York Times
William Widmer for The New York Times

Many people here still do not entirely know what to make of the mayor with the unusual name and even more unexpected résumé, who proudly embraced the term “militant” and to many was still the same dashiki-wearing firebrand who first came to prominence advocating an independent black nation in the South in the early 1970s.

But when Jackson said goodbye to Mayor Chokwe Lumumba this weekend, blacks and whites, for a change, largely united in mourning an unlikely experiment that ended when he died last month, apparently of a heart attack, at age 66, after only eight months in office.

To many in the capital’s black majority, the mayor was still the passionate advocate for black causes who over a 40-year career represented the rapper Tupac Shakur and pressed the state to retry the killer of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers. To the white business establishment, he had evolved into a surprisingly pragmatic politician who promised to fix the potholes and the sewers and passed a sales tax increase to help do it.

“It was very much like Nixon to China,” said Leland Speed, 81, the chairman of the EastGroup Properties real estate investment firm, who admits he did not vote for Mr. Lumumba. “The expectations when he was elected were not very high, and he surprised everybody pretty dramatically.”

What is no longer much debated here, from the tumbledown shacks in Jackson’s hollowed core to the colonnaded mansions and gated communities in the largely white northeast, is the sense that Mr. Lumumba was moving a city ravaged by decades of poverty, crime and white flight in the right direction. What is less clear in this city of half a million, the state’s largest, is what comes next.

Mr. Lumumba first arrived in Jackson in 1971 as a leader of the Republic of New Afrika, the 1960s-vintage liberation movement that called for billions in reparations payments to blacks and an independent black-majority nation in what are now the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Two years earlier, the Detroit native had changed his name from Edwin Taliaferro to Chokwe (pronounced SHOW-kway), for an African tribe that resisted slavery, and Lumumba, for Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader who was ousted and executed in 1961 by C.I.A.-backed forces.

While the candidates in last spring’s mayoral primary initially focused on Jackson’s daunting problems, chiefly soaring violent crime and crumbling infrastructure, Mr. Lumumba’s radical past quickly became an issue. A video surfaced of a speech he made in 2009 describing his election to City Council that year as part of the process of “seizing power from the ground up.”

The video proved, as one north-side resident put it in a local weekly, that Mr. Lumumba was “still a paranoid radical who hates America.”

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Source: The New York Times | HERBERT BUCHSBAUM

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