A repurposed day care center stands amid a handful of empty lots on Capitol Street in Jackson, Miss. No development of any kind has taken hold in this mid-point to the city’s downtown area. What stands out as cars come by are the red letters spelling out the “Lumumba Center” painted on the windows in honor of the short reign as mayor of legendary community activist and movement lawyer Chokwe Lumumba.
Lumumba, who passed away three years ago after serving only nine months of his term, served as a center point for radical change in Jackson. That center point is housed in the Lumumba Center and represents the tradition of Black self-determination and cooperative economics he advocated for during his organizing and political life. That center point is Cooperation Jackson.
Jackson, Miss., is perhaps one of the Blackest cities in the United States, with a population of over 180,000 people, 80 percent of them being Black. Everything about Jackson — from the story of African enslavement to the great era of the civil rights movement — proudly shapes the town’s history and its people. Mississippi winds whisper the names of freedom fighters like the great Fannie Lou Hammer and Medgar Evers. It is this tradition of Black resistance, unmistakably flowing in the blood of Black Jacksonians, that continues today out of necessity.
The legacies of slavery and Jim Crow have produced a racial wealth-gap that is further amplified in Mississippi by rapid de-industrialization. Rampant white flight out of the urban areas in favor of the suburbs during the ’60s and ’70s removed economic resources and caused further deterioration. In Mississippi, 34.4 percent of Black people live in poverty in a state where they make up only 37 percent of the population, according to a 2010 U.S. Census. In Jackson, those numbers are even worse. Where Black people make up roughly 80.1 percent of Jackson’s population, they are 87.8 percent of the people in poverty.
Enter Cooperation Jackson, seeking the self-determination and economic empowerment of the Black community through cooperative economics. To bring Mississippi “from worst to first” was the catch phrase Lumumba used to describe the project that would eventually become Cooperation Jackson. Lumumba was a revolutionary, a public defender and a politician who courted the Jackson council seat in 2009 with the help of the organizing base he created through several political organizations he founded with others. In 2013, he ran for mayor of Jackson and won a decisive victory.
The mayoral position allowed Lumumba the resources to seed cooperative projects in Jackson but his sudden passing from heart failure left many Black Jacksonians wondering if the material conditions of oppression in their lives would ever change. The conservative white establishment reconsolidated power and quickly moved away from cooperative development. However, outside of city politics, the organizing infrastructure and framework, which could push the goals of cooperative economics forward, were well established and left in the hands of some of Lumumba’s ablest lieutenants. Saki Hall and Kali Akuno, themselves longtime organizers who worked with Chokwe Lumumba, along with others pushed forward the cooperative ideas that became Cooperation Jackson.
“The broad mission of Cooperation Jackson is to advance the development of economic democracy in Jackson, Miss., by building a solidarity economy anchored by a network of cooperatives and other types of worker-owned and democratically self-managed enterprises” Akumo said.
The organization’s four-part approach for building in Jackson involves developing a co-op incubator, an education center, and financial institutions. It has recently launched its Sustainable Communities Initiative, which involves the development of an “eco-village” housing cooperative, a community land trust and a community development corporation. The initiative provides the stable foundation for the development of child care, urban farming, construction and recycling cooperatives.
Some of the project’s other goals involve the creation of a fabrication laboratory (fab lab), called the Center for Community Production, that functions as a training center and digital fabrication factory. This is a part of Cooperation Jackson’s Community Production Initiative, which hopes to establish a flourishing production economy based on new and innovative technology like 3D printing. Cooperation Jackson is always busy working on a number of projects in the Jackson area that all feed into each other.
“A big part of Cooperation Jackson is based on Black reality. Ain’t nobody creating no jobs for us,” said Akuno, co-founder and director of Cooperation Jackson. “Those days are long since past. In Jackson, Miss., I think the real unemployment rate is easily over 50 percent.
“Rather than see the limitations, we are seeing there’s more space from the decay of late capitalism to actually do some things to push back and start seizing the means of production. That is a big part of our project in Jackson. We call it organizing for ‘community production.’”
The story of Corporation Jackson and the Jackson plan is one of loss and perseverance. That perseverance has led to the son of Chokwe Lumumba, Chokwe Antar, also a member of Cooperation Jackson, running for the mayoral seat briefly held by his father. With ideas firmly grounded in cooperative economics as a way to build a shattered Jackson economy, Chowe Antar recently won the mayoral race. and hopes to continue his father’s legacy. With the advantage of a model of cooperative development already in place with Cooperation Jackson, the city of Jackson might just be ready to move from “worst to first.”