Lumumba was a crusading lawyer and human rights activist who never stopped fighting for Black and oppressed people in the U.S. and abroad. One of his crowning achievements, within just six months in office, was persuading Jackson voters to accept a one-cent local sales tax to fix crumbling roads and aging water and sewer systems. He told voters the tax would also create jobs and increase public safety by bringing in $15 million a year.
While a cause of death was not immediately known, City Council President Charles Tillman—who was sworn in as acting mayor—told the media that Lumumba had a cold when he met with him on Monday.
“He kind of joked around about it,” Tillman said.
After serving one term on the City Council, Lumumba beat incumbent Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. in the Democratic primary last June, then beat businessman Jonathan Lee in the runoff election.
“It is with a heavy heart that we inform you that our beloved brother, human rights activist and mayor of this great city, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, passed away this afternoon,” Safiya Omari, Lumumba’s chief of staff, said Tuesday night before breaking down into tears. As she spoke, she was surrounded by the seven members of the City Council beneath Lumumba’s portrait inside Jackson’s city hall, a building that dates back to slavery. The building was crowded with city employees, politicians, ministers and other residents of Mississippi’s largest city.
According to state law, the city council has 10 days to announce a special election, which must be held 30 to 45 days later.
City Council member Melvin Priester Jr. said in a short time Lumumba brought a spirit of openness to city government.
“He has done a great deal in the last couple of months to change the culture of government in Jackson,” said Priester, who won election to Lumumba’s former seat on the City Council.
Born in Detroit, Edwin Taliaferro changed his name in 1969, saying the first name, Chokwe, came from an African tribe that resisted slavery centuries ago, and the last name from the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba.
Lumumba was labeled a Black terrorist by many for his leadership of the radical group, the Republic of New Afrika, in the 1970s and ’80s. The group advocated a separate Black government and reparations for slavery and was closely monitored by the FBI.
“The provisional government of Republic of New Afrika was always a group that believed in human rights for human beings,” Lumumba told The Associated Press in a 2013 interview. “I think it has been miscast in many ways. It has never been any kind of racist group or ‘hate white’ group in any way. It was a group which was fighting for human rights for Black people in this country and at the same time supporting the human rights around the globe.”
But while many members of such separatist groups were harassed and prosecuted by law enforcement, Lumumba managed to take a different route. After finishing first in his law school class at Wayne State University, Lumumba became a staff attorney in the Detroit Public Defenders Office. He formed a law firm in Detroit in 1978 and became a renowned human rights lawyer and activist. He moved to Jackson in 1988 and continued his legal work on behalf of the indigent and powerless, helping to found organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and eventually being elected to the City Council in 2009.
In a statement, Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole said Democrats are “deeply saddened by the loss of the promising new mayor of our capital city, the Honorable Chokwe Lumumba.”
“His young administration has been a great beacon of hope for so many of us,” Cole said. “He was just beginning to make an effective start tackling the long-neglected challenges faced by our capital city.”
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant issued a statement Tuesday saying he and his wife, Deborah, “are shocked and saddened by the news of Mayor Lumumba’s passing and are praying for his loved ones.”
“Just a short time ago, I had the opportunity to join the mayor in a church pew as we welcomed a new development to the city,” Bryant said. “His enthusiasm for Jackson will be deeply missed.”