Comrade Chokwe Lumumba
March 8, 2014
Edwin Taliaferro, a young college student attended a meeting of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa (PGRNA) in Detroit, Michigan with his older brother Reggie in 1969. With Reggie’s insistence, the two brothers took the Oath of Allegiance to the New African (Black) nation in North America and became workers in the PGRNA. This pledge signified an important moment in the political development of Edwin, who would adopt the name Chokwe Lumumba. Lumumba became an important revolutionary nationalist organizer and theoretician, as well as activist criminal defense attorney. Lumumba emerged as one of the most significant orators for the Black Liberation Movement in the post–Black Power era and ended his political career as Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.
On August 2, 1947 in Detroit Michigan, Priscilla and Lucien Taliaferro had the second of their eight children, Edwin Finley Taliaferro. Priscilla and Lucien were working-class parents who reinforced values of hard work, spirituality, morality, service, and support for human rights with their children. Priscilla Taliaferro took her children door-to-door in Detroit to do fundraising for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Active in student government and athletics in high school, Edwin graduated and enrolled at Kalamazoo College, where he would join the Black student movement, inspired by urban rebellions and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. He and other Black students protested racism on campus and demanded the establishment of Black Studies on his campus. The Detroit rebellion of 1967 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. moved him to increase his activism and ultimately join the PGRNA.
The PGRNA was founded in Detroit in March 1968, days before the King assassination, at the Black Government Conference by the Malcolm X Society, which was led by Malcolm’s associates Attorney Milton Henry and his brother Imari Obadele. Over 500 attended the conference, including reparations advocate and former Garveyite Queen Mother Audley Moore, cultural nationalist organizer and theoretician Maulana Karenga, writer Amiri Baraka, Yoruba revivalist Nana Oserjiman Adefumi, and the widow of Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz. The conference participants resolved to declare their political independence from the United States and demand the five states, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to establish a territory for a new nation-state, the Republic of New Africa. A provisional government was also established naming political exile Robert F. Williams as the president. The following year, Edwin Taliaferro would pledge his allegiance to the Republic of New Africa (RNA) and, as Chokwe Lumumba, become one of the PGRNA’s leading workers.
Lumumba would first travel to Mississippi with the PGRNA in March 1971 for Land Celebration Day, an event to celebrate the new nation’s eminent purchase of land. Months later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Jackson police conducted a pre-dawn raid of a PGRNA residence on August 18 in Jackson, Mississippi. The raid and subsequent gunfire resulted in the death of police officer William Skinner and the wounding of another officer and an FBI agent. Seven PGRNA workers at the scene were arrested and four others, including PGRNA President Imari Obadele, apprehended later in a raid at another residence. The captured PGRNA workers became to be known as the RNA 11. In response to the arrests of his New African comrades, Lumumba returned to Mississippi to support the fight to free the RNA 11. It was the conviction of the RNA 11 on state and local charges that served as motivation for Lumumba to finish law school at Wayne State University. After his graduation and joining the Michigan Bar, Lumumba filed and won a law suit charging racial discrimination against Wayne State University for its treatment of African American law students.
Revolutionary Leader and Attorney
With Obadele in captivity, Lumumba emerged as the most visible leader and spokesperson of the PGRNA and the New Afrikan Independence Movement. He served as Minister of Justice and Midwest Regional Vice President, and sometimes as acting President of the PGRNA. His visibility was enhanced by his powerful oratory and writings in movement publications. Three important intellectual contributions of Lumumba’s appeared in The Black Scholar: “Repression and Black Liberation” (October 1973), “Perspectives on Human Rights: Alliances in a State of War” (March–April 1980), and “A Short History of the U.S. War on the R.N.A.” (January–February 1981). “Repression and Black Liberation” was published after Lumumba served as the primary organizer for the International African Prisoner of War Solidarity Day, which mobilized nearly 3000 to Jackson, Mississippi for a rally in support of political prisoners. The article detailed what Lumumba characterized as the “secret war” being waged on African people in the United States, which he highlighted through the cases of political prisoners in the US, including the RNA 11 and another incarcerated PGRNA worker, Ahmed Obafemi; the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM)’s Muhammad Ahmad; and prison rebel, Ruchell Magee. The article also presented an argument for New Afrikan independent nationhood and the importance of Black-majority counties in Mississippi toward that goal. “A Short History of the U.S. War on the R.N.A.” gave more specific detail on the repression on workers of the PGRNA, particularly COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) initiatives against the formation.
“Perspectives on Human Rights” exposes the hypocrisy of President Jimmy Carter’s human rights campaign and aligned the New Afrikan struggle for self-determination and sovereignty with the struggle of the Palestinian people against Zionism and the Iranian people against US imperialism. It distinguished the interests of the oppressed Black nation from the political agenda and foreign policy objectives of the US empire. This article best demonstrates Lumumba’s linking of revolutionary nationalism and internationalist solidarity.
From PGRNA to NAPO
Lumumba and other PGRNA workers ultimately decided they wanted another vehicle to organize the New Afrikan national liberation struggle other than the provisional government structure. They wanted a formation better designed to engage in grassroots organizing and to participate in coalitions and united fronts with local community groups and in national campaigns and initiatives. The provisional government structure was primarily constructed to get recognition from the international community and serve as an authority for governance until sovereignty was achieved. Lumumba and revolutionary nationalist PGRNA workers collaborated with members of two successor organization of the RAM, the African People’s Party and House of Umoja, and other Black radicals to form the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO) in 1984. Lumumba was elected NAPO’s Chair, a position he would occupy as the organization’s primary spokesperson for 29 years.
As an activist, organizer, and legal thinker, Lumumba emerged as one of the most vocal advocates of reparations. In September 1987 Lumumba, Obadele, and PGRNA leader attorney Nkechi Taifa presented papers on reparations at conference at Harvard Law School. Their presentations were compiled into a volume titled Reparations Yes, published in 1989. Reparations Yes presented the legal and political arguments for reparations for African slave descendants in the United States. Also in 1989, Lumumba represented NAPO in a collaboration with Imari Obadele and other PGRNA workers, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) and its Co-Chair, Adjoa Aiyetoro, to form the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA). NCOBRA was organized to continue Queen Mother Moore’s call for reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States and played a central role in the mobilization in the reparations in the late 1980s until the early part of the twentieth century. This momentum included the several resolutions in support of reparations by municipal legislatures in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Washington DC; campaigns to support John Conyers’ bill to establish a US Congressional Reparation Commission; and the effort to have the international community adopt a resolution acknowledging the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism.11 Adjoa Aiyetoro, “The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA): its Creation and Contribution to the Reparations Movement,” in Should America Pay: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations, ed. Ray Winbush (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 209–225.View all notes
Lumumba also distinguished himself as a revolutionary attorney in defense of human rights and those unjustly charged by the criminal justice system. He was engaged in courtrooms across the United States as an attorney for Black revolutionaries, including Assata Shakur, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, Sekou Odinga, Bilal Sunni-Ali, and Fulani Sunni-Ali. He also served as a legal advocate for Black people charged for acts of resistance. Lumumba participated in the legal defense team to win acquittal for 10 of the Pontiac Brothers defendants, 16 Black prisoners charged with murder during a 1978 uprising in an Illinois penitentiary. He also represented Lance Parker of the LA 5, who was facing assault, weapons, and vandalism charges related to the initiation of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion. Parker faced three years in prison with these serious and politically charged offenses. With the legal work of Lumumba and another NCBL attorney, Lynette Woodard, Parker was convicted of two charges, but acquitted of another two, received a hung jury on a third, and sentenced to three years’ probation. Lumumba also coordinated legal defense for legendary hip hop artist Tupac Shakur, who faced a series of charges in California, Georgia, and New York.
Building Family and Return to Mississippi
Chokwe married his life-partner and soulmate Nubia in 1980. The Lumumbas had two children, Rukia (born in 1978) and Chokwe Antar (born in 1983), and helped raise Kambon Mutope, Chokwe’s son from a previous marriage. The Lumumba family moved from Detroit to Jackson, Mississippi in 1988. Nubia’s grounding in the Jackson community greatly assisted Chokwe’s grassroots activism in the city. Lumumba continued practice law and his revolutionary activism, particularly to build NAPO and in 1990, co-founded the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), as NAPO’s mass association and political action wing. He also crisscrossed the US speaking at a variety of venues and events.
Lumumba and other Jackson activists formed the Jackson Human Rights Coalition (JHRC). One of the significant efforts of the JHRC was to pressure the Hinds County, Mississippi District Attorney to re-open the prosecution of Byron De La Beckwith and try the white supremacist for the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers. Two previous trials, in 1964, had ended in hung juries. Sparked by the JHRC activism to re-open the case, the 1994 prosecution of De La Beckwith finally led to the conviction of Evers’ assassin. Another of Lumumba’s most noted causes was fighting for the release of Jamie and Gladys Scott, a.k.a. the Scott Sisters, two young African American females convicted and sentenced to double-life sentences in Mississippi for an $11 armed robbery. Lumumba led a national campaign in support of the Scott sisters, who had served 16 years before Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour commuted their sentences in 2011. Lumumba also fought in the courts for labor rights for Black workers and against racial discrimination within workplaces, and challenged police misconduct throughout the state of Mississippi. He also represented members of the Choctaw nation versus charges of corruption with leaders of their tribal council.
Lumumba led NAPO and MXGM in organizing the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition (MDRC) in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coasts and negligence from the federal government, particularly in support of Black communities during the crisis. Lumumba and his comrades joined forces with other activists in the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. He played a significant role in organizing the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A panel of 16 international judges from nine countries, including South Africa, Haiti, Brazil, Venezuela, and Algeria, convened on August 29 through September 2, 2007 to hear almost 30 hours of testimony by hurricane survivors and experts. The testimony covered federal, state, and local government neglect and negligence in 15 areas, ranging from police brutality to environmental racism, from misappropriation of relief to gentrification. Lumumba presented the closing argument charging federal, state, and local officials with genocide. While much of the testimony presented at the Katrina Tribunal was ignored by the corporate media, independent outlets exposed findings that later resulted in the convictions of police officials engaged in misconduct during the Katrina Hurricane and its aftermath.
Chokwe Lumumba and Electoral Politics
Lumumba earned a strong reputation in Mississippi due to his long history of human rights activism and effective legal work. Jackson activists had encouraged him to run of public office to represent human rights and African American concerns. NAPO and MXGM members developed the Jackson-Kush plan to win political power, promote participatory democracy, and seek economic justice in Black-majority counties in Mississippi. Lumumba would initially run for Jackson’s City Council in Ward 2 in 2009 as part of the plan. To assert participatory democracy, a People’s Assembly was formed to develop and approve the platform for his candidacy, the People’s Platform. Lumumba was elected to City Council after winning a runoff election with 61 per cent of the vote. With the development of a city-wide People’s Assembly and People’s Platform, Lumumba was elected Jackson’s mayor, receiving 58 per cent of the vote in a 2013 runoff. Lumumba was hailed by different media outlets as the “most revolutionary mayor” in the United States.22 “Chokwe Lumumba: Remembering ‘America’s Most Revolutionary Mayor,’” Democracy Now, February 26, 2014, https://www.democracynow.org/2014/2/26/chokwe_lumumba_remembering_americas_....View all notes As another aspect of the Jackson-Kush Plan, Lumumba promoted the development of worker-owned cooperatives as a vehicle to improve the lives of working and poor Black people in Jackson and throughout the state of Mississippi.
Lumumba died of heart failure on February 25, 2014. He was mourned by revolutionaries and grassroots activists, members of the legal community, elected officials, and hosts of others. His body lay in state in the Jackson City Hall. Chants of “free the land,” the slogan of the NAIM, were constant throughout his memorial. As the procession took his body through the predominantly Black and working-class neighborhoods of Jackson, hundreds of people came from their home waving red, black, and green flags and Lumumba election paraphernalia. As the mourners entered the cemetery, they noticed that the Jackson Fire Department had displayed a red, black, and green flag along with the US flag at the entrance in honor of the late revolutionary New Afrikan.
The revolutionary movement Lumumba initiated in Jackson did not die with his burial. Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, was elected Jackson’s mayor in 2017 and pledged to make the municipality “the most radical city on the planet,” with a commitment to participatory democracy and cooperative economics.
This special issue of The Black Scholar pays tribute to the political legacy of Chokwe Lumumba. The contributions are from intellectuals uniquely qualified to provide analysis of Lumumba’s contributions. Scholar-activist and cultural worker Michael Simanga worked with Lumumba in Detroit. Simanga analyses the significance of Lumumba’s electoral campaigns. Kent State University Professor Asantewa Sunni-Ali interviews Lumumba’s children, Rukia and Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. Sunni-Ali is in a unique position to conduct and interpret Rukia and Chokwe Antar’s experience, since she is the daughter of two revolutionary New Afrikan activists, Bilal and Fulani Sunni-Ali. Venezuela Consul to the United States and Afro-descendant activist and scholar Jesus “Chucho” Garcia interacted with Lumumba and hosted the New Afrikan revolutionary in Venezuela in 2011.
Finally, I worked with Lumumba since 1979 and along with several others, co-founded the NAPO and MXGM with him. I contributed an article, “The People Must Decide: Chokwe Lumumba, New Black Power, and the Potential for Participatory Democracy in Mississippi,” which explains Lumumba as a revolutionary democrat and how his perspective informs the movement for Black power in the twenty-first century. While much of the volume focuses on Lumumba’s work in Jackson as an elected official, this issue also features two of his contributions to The Black Scholar (previously mentioned), “Repression and Black Liberation” and “Perspectives on Human Rights”, which will give the reader his perspective on the covert war on the Black freedom struggle and his internationalist outlook. We hope this issue contributes to an understanding of Chokwe Lumumba’s politics and practice and will inspire more research and activism inspired by this revolutionary New Afrikan freedom fighter.