By Michael Siegel
The Mississippi State Capitol in downtown Jackson. Shutterstock
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.
As Jessica Gordon Nembhard chronicles in “Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice,” the black cooperative movement can be traced back to times of slavery and the Underground Railroad, when some pooled their savings to buy one person’s freedom and when others pooled resources to support the escape network. In the early 20th century, Nembhard writes, cooperative activity enabled black people “to achieve a level of economic independence that contributed to their later success in achieving voting rights and other civil rights.”
At the Jackson Rising conference, a variety of panelists and speakers, including Nembhard, spoke to the utility of the worker cooperative as part of a larger strategy to support the health of the black working class. In a time of Right to Work laws, attacks on worker centers, massive and underreported unemployment and a pitiful federal minimum wage, the worker cooperative appears to be a tool to prevent the extraction of surplus value from the backs of labor.
A leading international example of the cooperative movement is the Mondragon cooperative from the Basque region of Spain. Founded by a young Catholic priest and students of a technical school in 1956, Mondragon is now a cooperative of cooperatives, encompassing nearly 300 distinct businesses and employing over 80,000 people. Mondragon cooperative enterprises include banks, manufacturing, skilled and unskilled labor, public schools and a university. Consistent with a broader international movement to define and promote ethical cooperative enterprise, the pay differential between the highest and lowest paid workers at Mondragon is generally between 3-to-1 and 5-to-1, and the CEO of the entire Mondragon Corporation earns only nine times as much as the lowest-paid worker (this compares with an average ratio of 600-to-1 at large U.S. corporations).
The organizers in Jackson aim to build their version of Mondragon in the South. The Jackson Rising conference brought together nearly 500 interested participants, including dozens of local would-be cooperative organizers along with representatives of political and co-op organizations from around the country. New cooperatives springing up in Jackson include a recycling business, a five-acre urban farm, a laundry business and a construction firm. Regional and national organizations are providing support, including the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, the Southern Grassroots Economies Project, and the Fund for Democratic Communities.
The Hub of a New Human Rights Movement
On March 8, over a thousand people attended Lumumba’s memorial service. The Jackson Convention Center was packed to overflowing. Individuals from every part of Lumumba’s life came to honor his legacy, including leaders from NAPO, MXGM, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, the Jackson City Council and even the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Lumumba had been responsible for liberating the unjustly imprisoned—including the Scott sisters, who were notoriously imprisoned for nearly 20 years for stealing $11 in merchandise—and for helping develop a new generation of political organizers in places including Detroit, Atlanta and Jackson.
Every speaker at Lumumba’s memorial committed him- or herself to the continued work of fulfilling his revolutionary legacy in Jackson. When a caravan of cars and buses followed the hearse from the Jackson Convention Center to Lumumba’s gravesite, hundreds upon hundreds of residents parked their cars, stood by the road, shouted Lumumba’s favored slogan—“Free the land!”—and gave the Black Power salute to the procession. The people of Jackson are ready for the continued fulfillment of Lumumba’s vision.
The Jackson Rising conference represents a critical next step in the work to turn Jackson into a national model for how a poor and working-class community can rebuild itself despite the pressures of our current economy. The organizers have invited support from all corners, and some groups have already answered the call.
The 2015 U.S. Social Forum will be held at three sites, and on April 4, 2014, the national planning committee announced that Jackson would serve as the convergence point for the South. As the committee noted:
The organizing in Jackson and legacy of Mayor Lumumba show how people can build and are building a better world using people’s assemblies to facilitate participatory democracy and unity in action. This demonstration of people’s power to transform the city from below offers to the nation a model for how to transition from what is to what must be through autonomous collectives, electoral strategy, and alternative economic models that liberate people from exploitative forms of capital and build communities of mutual respect and collectivity.
The world is starting to take notice of the work in Jackson. We should all figure out how to support the critical work there, and also bring cooperative and liberatory economic endeavors to our own communities.
Michael Siegel is a civil and human rights lawyer who lives in Austin, Texas.