Fifty years ago, during the Freedom Summer of 1964, activists in Jackson, Mississippi, led voter registration drives that eventually made Mississippi the state with the highest number of black elected officials in the country. Mississippi is famous for the great civil rights battles of the 1960s. But it also consistently ranks dead last in quality of life indices like income inequality, quality of public education, and access to healthcare and healthy food.
These are the conditions that motivated members of the Malcom X Grassroots Movement to begin organizing in Jackson several years ago to move the living and working conditions of residents “from worst to first.” Their efforts resulted in neighborhood organizing projects and the election of Chokwe Lumumba to as a city council member in 2009, and as mayor in June, 2013.
But Lumumba’s sudden, untimely death this past February put the breaks on some of the movement’s ambitious plans, like creating an incubator for cooperative businesses, innovative city waste management and recycling programs, and progressive procurement policies that would favor local, black-owned businesses in bidding processes.
The new administration of Mayor Tony Yarber is actively antagonistic to those in the Lumumba administration who have worked to implement the plan. The day after Yarber’s election, former Lumumba staffers were fired from their jobs and locked out of their offices. And despite a city resolution to support the Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference earlier this month, Yarber’s administration refused to provide security or insurance for the event, leading to a last minute fundraising scramble to cover the costs.
Still, 500 activists, artists, and scholars came together to support city efforts to transform the local economy into a self-determining hub of cooperative enterprise.
The centerpiece of Lumumba’s mayoral campaign was an updated version of what's known as the "Jackson-Kush Plan," an explicitly revolutionary framework that seeks to develop a broad-based solidarity economy to meet the needs of the community and create employment for local residents. The plan is rooted in strong neighborhood-based People’s Assemblies, cooperative enterprises and social organizations, community gardens, and a program for fielding political candidates supportive of those initiatives.
(The original Jackson-Kush plan grew out of the radical black self-determination movement of the 1960s and included the Republic of New Afrika’s vision for an independent black-majority country comprising the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, as first articulated in 1968.)
While still grieving the loss of their beloved friend, Jackson Rising participants forged ahead with conference planning and created Cooperation Jackson, the new institutional home of the political and economic initiatives contained in the Jackson-Kush plan.
A subtle sense of mourning threaded through the three day Jackson Rising conference and muted what might have otherwise felt like a triumphal occasion. But it also provided a more reflective atmosphere in which to listen and learn from the many hundreds of people gathered there to move the vision of a just, cooperative, and humane society forward.
The program was filled with practical workshops on the basics of cooperatives and how to start one, as well as more strategic sessions led by labor organizers from across the south, and solidarity economy and cooperative activists from Quebec, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Left-leaning philanthropists and foundations were also on hand to discuss how to finance cooperatives.
The gathering brought together people who have dedicated their lives to social transformation through working class struggle, various strands of the black liberation movement, and other social justice causes. Among them was Wendell Paris of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which has helped thousands of farmers to organize agricultural and land-buying cooperatives and credit unions across the south as a collective strategy to create self-sufficiency.
Paris talked about how agricultural and land-buying coops not only provide members with a base for their productive activities, but also give members experience in democratic processes and management. He noted that many black political leaders in the rural South have come out of the cooperative movement.
Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard shared her research on the history of African-American cooperatives. In her recent book “Collective Courage: A History of African-American Economic Thought and Practice,” she traces cooperation in the black community back to a Philadelphia mutual aid society in the 1700s and highlights the connection between coops and the civil rights movement. She quoted Fanny Lou Hamer, coop member and founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, on the importance of collective self-determination: “Until we control our own food, land, housing, we can't be truly empowered."
In an interview with Laura Flanders two weeks before his death, Chokwe Lumumba had this to say:
“When it comes to the discussion of oppression in America, we’ve been experiencing the worst of it for a long time. What’s exciting to me is the prospect of going from worst to first in a forward-moving transformation which is going to take groups of dispossessed black folks here and others and make us controllers of our own destiny.
“We are not foolish enough to think that it is a mission that can probably be accomplished here in the absence of fundamental movement in the rest the world, but we think we can start that movement and help carry it forward, and help advance it in a really powerful way. So that’s what excites us.”
Bob Wing, a veteran peace and racial justice organizer, recently made this assessment of the failure of progressives to build power in the U.S.: “Somehow we have been unable to connect a critical mass of the most experienced radical organizers with the most thoughtful radical intellectuals with genuinely progressive politicians, especially across the color line, to produce a mass radical but practical organization or set of organizations that could sustain and build.”
The Malcom X Grassroots Movement and the short-lived Lumumba administration were just beginning to pick up all of these strands to weave the fabric of just such an organization. With the continued support and solidarity from those who attended the historic Jackson Rising conference, Cooperation Jackson may turn out to be that kind of radical, practical organization that can sustain and build power.
At the end of the conference, this spontaneous sing along perfectly captured the spirit of Jackson Rising:
(video by Hannah Nyoike)
Rebecca Kemble and Hannah Nyoike are contributors to The Progressive.