(1947–2014) Activist, Attorney, and Political Leader
An activist, lawyer, and briefly the mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Lumumba was born Edwin Finley Taliaferro on 2 August 1947 in Detroit. Taliaferro learned a sense of social responsibility from his parents’ civil rights efforts in Michigan. As he recalled, “I developed a political consciousness because I had a mother who knew. She knew about justice and injustice, about self-determination.”
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Taliaferro joined the Black Action Movement at Western Michigan University, where student protesters seized a campus building and demanded that administrators examine racism on campus. Inspired, Lumumba helped establish the Black United Front at Kalamazoo, and in 1969 he joined the provisional government of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), a liberation movement that sought financial reparations for slavery and land in the southeastern United States to establish an independent black nation. During this period he changed his name, taking Chokwe (warrior) from an Angolan tribe that never succumbed to slavery and Lumumba to honor fallen Congolese nationalist Patrice Lumumba.
After graduating from Kalamazoo College with a degree in political science, Lumumba enrolled at Detroit’s Wayne State University Law School but left in 1971 when his RNA responsibilities called him to Mississippi. The group’s headquarters had relocated to a house near Jackson State University, and in August 1971 agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Jackson Police Department raided the property. During the resulting exchange of gunfire, police lieutenant William Louis Skinner was killed, and eleven RNA members were charged with murder and treason. Lumumba temporarily moved to Jackson to provide assistance to the RNA legal defense.
Lumumba subsequently returned to Detroit, finished his law degree, and worked briefly in the Detroit public defender’s office. He then entered private practice, retaining his commitment to the goal of liberation and self-determination for African Americans and frequently accepting cases that placed him at odds with mainstream politics. In 1978 Lumumba defended the Pontiac Brothers, sixteen inmates charged with murder during a riot at Illinois’s Pontiac Correctional Facility. In 1981 Lumumba served as counsel for Black Liberation Army members Fulani Sunni-Ali, Bilal Sunni-Ali, and Mutula Shakur, accused of involvement in an armored car robbery that resulted in the death of two police officers. Lumumba also worked to uncover evidence to support the release of Geronimo Pratt and briefly provided counsel for exiled Assata Shakur, both of whom were high-profile members of the Black Panthers.
Lumumba and his family moved to Mississippi in 1988, but his activist past and affiliation with controversial legal clients made his admittance into the Mississippi Bar Association difficult. Lumumba established a Jackson firm in 1991 and continued “working for people caught up in racial or political situations.” Among several politically charged cases, Lumumba helped orchestrate the release of sisters Gladys and Jamie Scott, who were serving consecutive life sentences for a 1994 armed robbery in Forest. Based on the perceived severity of the Scott sisters’ sentences, the case gained attention from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other human rights organizations. In December 2010, with Jamie Scott suffering from kidney failure, Gov. Haley Barbour ordered the sisters’ release from prison on the condition that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie.
Away from the courtroom, Lumumba cofounded the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the Malcolm X Center for Self Determination and continued his involvement with the New Afrikan People’s Organization. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Lumumba organized “people’s assemblies,” assisting in community-driven recovery efforts.
Lumumba shifted into more conventional public service, winning election to Jackson’s City Council in 2009. After one term representing Jackson’s Ward 2, he ran for mayor. Lumumba neither distanced himself from his radical past nor viewed a run for public office as a departure from the goals of the RNA and New Afrikan People’s Organization. While still committed to increasing political agency for African Americans, Lumumba made his mayoral campaign more inclusive, promoting “an agenda of compassion, justice, and human rights.” Lumumba envisioned that Jackson could build a “solidarity economy” based on localized cooperatives and municipal partnerships with citizen-run businesses. After a decisive win, Lumumba took office in July 2013 and immediately focused on Jackson’s neglected infrastructure, fighting to raise water and sewer rates to finance internal improvement projects.
Lumumba died unexpectedly on 25 February 2014. Formerly skeptical political foes found his seven months in office promising, surprisingly amenable, and effective. At his funeral, former governor William Winter stated, “I was afraid that he would divide our city. I could not have been more wrong.” Three years after Lumumba’s death, his son, attorney Choke Antar Lumumba, ran a successful campaign to become the mayor of Jackson.
Chris Colbeck, University of Mississippi
Herbert Buchsbaum, New York Times (10 March 2014); Robert Caldwell, Against the Current (May–June 2013); Chokwe Lumumba File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History; National Conference of Black Lawyers website, www.ncbl.org; Bhaskar Sunkara, The Nation (26 February 2014); Western Michigan University Archives website, https://wmich.edu/library/collections/archives; Akinyele Umoja, “Introduction: The Political Legacy of Chokwe Lumumba,” in The Black Scholar (2018).