Book Review of Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi

Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, By Ajamu Nangwaya, Kali Akuno, Daraja Press, 2017, 312 pages, $29.99 paperback

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There has been much interest among those who advocate for worker ownership and economic democracy in the organizing struggles that were undertaken in Jackson, MS, and that led to the election of Chokwe Lumumba as Mayor of Jackson on June 4, 2013.  Building on years of grassroots organizing and running on a well thought-out program of cooperative economic development and participatory political action, known as the Jackson-Kush Plan,[1] the efforts of this successful black liberation candidate to win office in this hardcore deep South city—Mississippi’s capital and the largest city in the state—appeared to auger the launching of a significant program that saw economic democracy as an essential component of the liberation struggle of the black poor and working class.  

Lumumba’s untimely death on February 14, 2014, only some eight months after his election, heightened concerns that the comprehensive platform for change that he had run on would get derailed and possibly be destroyed.  Such fears were exacerbated by the defeat of his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who ran to replace him, by a Black council member put up by conservative white Jackson business interests.  That Chokwe Antar ran again for mayor in 2016, got more votes than his father had, won the primary by 55% and the general election by an overwhelming 93%, and was installed as Jackson’s mayor July 3, 2017, is a clear indication that the movement that had led to this most potentially significant political change in Mississippi is still strong and still moving forward.

What Chokwe Lumumba’s program of economic development and political action, i.e., the Jackson-Kush Plan, was and why it was not derailed by this string of events that would have been enough to undermine a host of other Black liberation political struggles in the United States, is the focus of the recently issued book, Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self- Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, Cooperation Jackson, Daraja Press (2017).   Indeed, one of the key indicators that this political movement and struggle did not die with Chokwe Lumumba was the Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference held on May 2-4, 2014, a few months after Chokwe’s death, at Jackson State University that attracted over 500 attendees.  The papers presented at that conference form a substantial part of this book.

The book is a collection of 24 essays by 23 different contributors that address various elements of the Jackson-Kush Plan, many of the practical initiatives undertaken by those organizing around the Plan, the history of the organizing that preceded the development of the Plan, the strategies and tactics of Chokwe Lumumba’s campaign and an assessment of the impact and consequences of these efforts.  In her forward to the book, Rukia Lumumba, Chokwe’s daughter, provides a short-hand version of what the book is doing when she says, “Jackson Rising documents the history and intersectionality of the Cooperative Movement and the Mississippi Freedom Movement.”

These essays provide not only the context—both historical and current—in which the principles and programs of the Jackson-Kush Plan were developed, but also go into careful detail about the conceptual underpinnings and practical implementations for each and every aspect and initiative undertaken in carrying out the Plan.  This review cannot do justice to the profound level of detailed explanation the writers have provided as to how and why the various elements of the Jackson-Kush Plan have been carried out and how adjustments have been made to accomplish what the theory proposed in light of the difficulties and obstacles encountered, both those planned for and those that arose unexpectedly.

Because there are so many essays, there is some repetition of facts and stories.  Some essays are very brief, some more extensive.  Though the quality of the essays is at a very high level throughout the book, if one only had time to read some of them, I would say that two essays by Kali Akuno, a long-standing comrade, supporter and activist who worked with Chokwe Lumumba for many years and was a key architect of the Jackson-Kush Plan, that kind of book-end the table of contents are must-reads.  These are: “Build and Fight: The Program and Strategy of Cooperation Jackson” and “Casting Shadows: Chokwe Lumumba and the Struggle for Racial Justice and Economic Democracy in Jackson, Mississippi.”

There are a number of key takeaways from these essays. First, and perhaps the most significant, is that Chokwe Lumumba’s election success was not based simply on a political campaign for office, but on literally decades of organizing in Jackson’s Black community and the counties that made up the Kush District.                                             

Chokwe Lumumba, born and raised in Detroit, MI, first moved to Mississippi in March of 1971, when he was 23 years old and taking a break from his second year at Wayne State Law School. He went to Mississippi to work with the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa (PGRNA) in its efforts to found the new community of El Hajj Malik (based on the name Malcom X had chosen for himself, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz).  The PGRNA was intending to acquire land by accessing funds authorized by Congress under the New Communities Act, and build a community that where no discrimination existed based on color, class, gender, or physical disability. 

The PGRNA purchased 20 acres from a Black farmer about 20 miles outside of Jackson and had contracted with a builder to build a school and dining hall on the property.  On the day the group and its supporters chose to inaugurate the site, which date they called “Land Celebration Day,” they were met by an armed phalanx of Klansmen, and state, local and federal police.  Despite this intimidating barricade, the group and its supporters managed to walk the last five miles to the site and inaugurate their project.  Their success, however, was ephemeral as the Black farmer was pressured to rescind the sale, and the local and state authorities were unrelenting in their efforts to undermine this work. The effort by the PGRNA to create this ideal community in Mississippi came to an end.

After this defeat, Lumumba returned to Detroit to finish his law degree and embark on a successful career as a lawyer. While in Detroit, he cofounded two organizations that intended to carry out the work of the PGRNA—the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO) and the Malcom X Grassroots Movement (MXGM).  He moved back to Jackson, Mississippi with his family in 1988, where he worked as a civil rights lawyer and a political activist in these groups to develop a strategy for building black political and economic power in Jackson. 

Indeed, the Jackson-Kush Plan was developed by NAPO and MXGM between 2004 and 2010, well before any mayoral campaign was on the horizon.[2]  Kali Akuno explains that the purpose of the Plan was “to advance the New Afrikan Peoples Movement and hasten the socialist transformation of the territories currently claimed by the United States settler colonial state. . .Cooperation Jackson[3] is a vehicle specifically created  to advance a key component of the Jackson-Kush Plan, namely the development of a solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi to advance the struggle for economic democracy as a prelude towards the democratic transition to eco-socialism.”

As Akuno explains it, the Jackson-Kush Plan had three fundamental programmatic foci that had the aim of “build[ing] a mass base with political clarity, organizational capacity and material self-sufficiency.”  The three foci were:

  1. People’s Assemblies.  Building People’s Assemblies throughout the Kush District.  These assemblies were conceived of as (i) “mass” gatherings—mass meaning that the body engaged at least 1/5 of the population in a given geographic area, (ii) addressing meaningful social issues in a way that provided solutions, not just giving voice to those assembled, and (iii) operating n a “one person; one vote” principle.
  2. Independent Politics.  Building an independent political force throughout the state, but concentrated in the Kush District to challenge the two capitalist parties through a network of progressive candidates.  Key to this effort is grassroots organizing and alliance-building, both based on an extensive campaign of education around fundamental issues.
  3. Solidarity Economy.  Building a “solidarity economy” in Jackson and the Kush District anchored by a network of cooperatives and supporting institutions to strengthen worker power and economic democracy.  This network consists of (i) worker, consumer and housing cooperatives and credit unions, built up through a Take Back the Land initiative that sought to occupy abandoned lands and buildings and repurposing them towards socially productive uses, (ii) creating economically sustainable, i.e., green enterprises, (iii) developing community and conservation land trusts, and (iv) developing an adequate publicly financed infrastructure to support these development strategies. 

What Akuno means by “solidarity economy” is a concept that “describes a process of promoting cooperative economics that promote social solidarity, mutual aid, reciprocity and generosity.”  It is a concept he readily credits as being inspired by the cooperative networks in Mondragon, Spain that successfully combined cooperative economic development with a movement for self-determination and sovereignty.  

With the death of Chokwe Lumumba, and the defeat of Chokwe Antar’s initial mayoral run, the focus of the Jackson-Kush Plan was the development of private cooperative economic institutions under the Cooperation Jackson plank of the Plan, and the ongoing development of People’s Assemblies to both articulate the issues that mattered most to the citizens of Jackson and the Kush District and to continue their education and training in participatory democracy, political self-determination and grassroots self-organization.

The second key takeaway form the book, and one that is obvious from this brief summary, is that while the success of the movement’s goals cannot be achieved without a sustainable economic base, developing the solidarity economy envisioned by the Jackson-Kush Plan will not be enough.  Essential to success is developing both the ability of people to actively participate in the political direction of the city, state and country, but to do so on an informed, confident and self-directed basis.  In short, worker-ownership and the ability to participate in and direct the enterprises where folks are employed is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition, for achieving the kind of self-direction from below that will ensure political, as well as economic, democracy.  The strength of the Jackson-Kush Plan is that from the first it saw its economic platform based on a vision of the solidarity economy, and its political platform based on a specific conception of building people’s assemblies, as not just mutually supportive, but understanding that the success of each is absolutely integral to the success of both, and together provide the basis for meaningful success in the traditional electoral arena.

The third key take-away is that the story told in Jackson Rising reinforces in a dramatic way the old movement slogan that “freedom is a constant struggle.”  There is no resting on any achieved laurels.  Success only lays the groundwork for further advances; failure creates the opportunity to avoid making the same mistakes, thus clearing the ground for clearly envisioning and taking the next steps forward.  The ability of the Jackson-Kush movement to continue rising following the death of Chokwe Lumumba and the mayoral defeat of his son Antar is testimony to the strength of the values of this movement, its organizational integrity and the clarity of its analysis. 

It is too soon to adequately assess the progress that has been made and might come in the future from Chokwe Antar’s recent successful election as Jackson’s mayor.  What we do know is that the powers that oppose this movement have had time to respond, and with a better understanding of its goals and tactics, to build counter-measures designed to derail and destroy this movement.  In her forward to the book, Rukia Lumumba notes five specific initiatives by Mississippi’s legislature that have been introduced, and two executive actions by its governor that have been taken to combat the successes and momentum of the Jackson-Kush Plan.  Perhaps the most significant of the legislative actions is the effort to move control of Jackson’s airport, and the revenue derived from operating it, from the city to the county, thereby significantly reducing the revenues available to carry out the Jackson-Kush Plan.  Along the same lines is the bill introduced to redirect the 1% sales tax increase passed by Chokwe to fund the city’s compliance with an EPA-required water/sewage system improvement mandate[4] from the city to the state treasury.  There has also been introduced what we might think of as more traditional Mississippi legislation designed to: (i) give police broader powers to the police to stop and search people of color and (ii) openly permit discrimination against members of the LGBTI community for religious reasons.  And to add insult to injury, Rukia points out that the governor recently established April as Confederate Heritage month in Mississippi.

In bringing together these extensive essays, Jackson Rising provides a detailed discussion of this most important social achievement in the struggles for black liberation and economic democracy.  The extensive theoretical work that has gone into the Jackson-Kush Plan, and especially its implementation challenges and successes, are of extreme value to all who are involved in working towards economic democracy and political self-determination.  Indeed, for all of us who are in any way involved in such work, it is a must-read.

Notes

[1] The “Kush” in the Jackson-Kush Plan refers to the 18 contiguous counties in Mississippi that run along the Mississippi River on the state’s western border, 17 of which are majority Black and the 18th is nearly so.  The Malcolm X Grass Roots Movement (MXGM) called these counties the “Kush District,” after the generic name given to the collection of agricultural communities that bordered the Nile River in what is now Egypt and Sudan.

[2] For the full text of the Jackson-Kush Plan go to:  http://navigatingthestorm.blogspot.com/2012/05/the-jackson-kush-plan-and-struggle-for.html

[3] “Cooperation Jackson” is the name used to describe the cooperative economic development programs of the Jackson-Kush Plan.

[4] The EPA action pre-dated Chokwe’s election, but nevertheless committed the city to a seventeen-year investment in water and sewage infrastructure that ran into many millions of dollars.  Chokwe’s ability to get passage of a 1% sales tax to fund this required expenditure was seen as reflecting the depth of his support in Jackson.  Depriving the city of these funds is clearly intended to undermine Chokwe Antar’s ability to meet this obligation and other initiatives proposed in the Jackson-Kush Plan, thereby laying the groundwork for a campaign to defeat his efforts to get re-elected.