- Baynard Woods
- “We need to be as radical as the circumstances dictate we should be.”
“I knew a little before everybody else, but I’ll simply say this without even referencing Trump himself,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told me when the visit was announced. “The opening of the Civil Rights Museum is an important moment of a recognition of struggle. And out of that struggle, we’ve seen people historically rescue themselves in a state [Mississippi] that has been known for some of the most negativity that the world has ever seen.”
Lumumba took Trump’s election last year with a certain level of equanimity, saying that on the day after the election, “I woke up in Mississippi, which means whether it is Obama, Clinton or Bush, Mississippi is still at the bottom.”
But Trump has been particularly unpopular with civil rights leaders. His refusal to condemn the white supremacists in Charlottesville caused many of them, including Rep. John Lewis, who was scheduled to deliver the keynote address, to boycott the opening of the new museum when it was announced Trump would attend.
The disgust with Trump wasn’t just fueled by Charlottesville. White supremacy may be the only consistent ideology of the Trump administration.
Of that, Lumumba says, “We have to observe this corrosion of integrity and this erosion of people’s human and civil rights and identify what role or what steps we’re willing to take. It’s important that we recognize that struggle [of the Civil Rights Movement]. But any celebration of struggle, any recognition of struggle, must consider what the next step forward is.”
Trump, being Trump, made the museum controversy worse by throwing his support behind a politician who justifies slavery. Days before the presidential visit to the first state-sponsored Civil Rights museum, Roy Moore, the Alabama senatorial candidate who is supported by the president despite allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior with minors, went viral saying that America “was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery, they cared for one another.”
The next day, when Trump had the opportunity to object to this interpretation of his catch phrase, he instead took to Twitter to double-down on his support for Moore, writing: “LAST thing the Make America Great Again Agenda needs is a Liberal Democrat in Senate where we have so little margin for victory already. The Pelosi/Schumer Puppet Jones would vote against us 100% of the time. He’s bad on Crime, Life, Border, Vets, Guns & Military. VOTE ROY MOORE!”
When he finally got to Jackson, Trump, who was invited by the state’s white Republican governor, spoke to a small crowd, primarily reading from a script, and not at the main event. “The fight to end slavery, to break down Jim Crow, to end segregation, to gain the right to vote, and to achieve the sacred birthright of equality — that’s big stuff,” Trump said. “Those are very big phrases, very big words.”
“Ultimately, what I mean by being the most radical city on the planet, is giving people more access,” he told my colleague Jaisal Noor. “We do this through the … movement of People’s Assemblies that allow people to speak to their conditions, and so that is very important to us.”
“People’s Assemblies” aim to bring more voices into government — they’re a form of direct democracy. According to the Jackson-Kush Plan, a document produced by the Jackson People’s Assembly and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, People’s Assemblies are “vehicles of Black self-determination and autonomous political authority of the oppressed peoples’ and communities in Jackson.”
It goes on to say: “The Assemblies are organized as expressions of participatory or direct democracy, wherein there is guided facilitation and agenda setting provided by the committees that compose the People’s Task Force, but no preordained hierarchy.”
The movement grew out of a collaboration of black activist groups forming in the Mississippi River Delta in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction and quickly managed to take over the city of Jackson, when Lumumba’s father, also named Chokwe Lumumba, won the mayorship in 2013, but died shortly after in 2014.
“Free the land” was a common refrain in the elder Lumumba’s first campaign. It came from his trip to Mississippi in 1971, when he sought to start an autonomous black nation in that state with the “Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika.” To get to their land, Lumumba and his supporters had to face down the Klan. This weekend, with the president’s visit, his son, who was elected mayor this year, had to take a similar stand.
The younger Lumumba had resisted repeated calls to run for office. But after his father’s death, he decided to run. He won a decisive victory, giving some hope for what a city can do, outside of larger national trends. Lumumba and the People’s Assemblies offer a serious alternative to Trumpian authoritarianism.
“A radical is a person who seeks change,” the younger Lumumba says. “A radical is a person who does not accept the conditions as they see them. But we look at the conditions of our community and we see a need for change. Then the reality is, we need to be as radical as the circumstances dictate we should be.”