EMERGENCE

3 The New Southern Strategy: The Politics of Self-determination in the South

Kamau Franklin

A view from 2009

In October 2008, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) made a strategic decision to run one of its founders, Chokwe Lumumba, for the Ward 2 City Council seat in Jackson, Mississippi. We took on this strategy in part because over 10 months ago[1] the US electorate, partly due to an economic meltdown, open-ended wars abroad and the changing demographics of the U.S. population, voted in a moderate Black Democrat as its President. That President has gone through great pains to appear as race neutral as possible in both content and rhetoric. Which means that although there has been a substantial amount of hope and resources invested in him the possible returns on such an investment remains unclear for the Black community. With many constituents to please, the new president was guessing that he could not afford to look as if he was overly responsive to the needs of the Black community.

Moderate Black elected officials who are beholden to the Democratic Party similarly dominate the southern Black population. These politicians filled a void vacated by the veterans of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 60’s and 70’s, who were forced to abandon the development of a coherent political strategy due to the severe attacks the movements were subjected to by the US government, big corporations and white reaction. These careerist forces filled the void by becoming beholden to the Democratic Party. The needs of the community took a back seat to their own individual career paths. It is in this context that MXGM saw an opening to support the candidacy of Chokwe in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson is an overwhelmingly Black city, where Black elected officials, or as they may prefer, elected officials who just happen to be Black, dominate city politics.

This domination has not led however, to the Jackson populace’s participation in true city decision making, to better governmental services, more job’s, better health care or a safer and cleaner environment. With no commitment to anything, beyond getting elected these officials don’t bring any overarching principles to city-government beyond the principle of careerism. This gave us the opportunity to respond with a candidate who could highlight real choices to areas that we have a majority Black population. In no other place other than the South, where over 50% of the U.S. Black population still lives could we highlight the politics of self-determination versus the politics of careerism and moderation.

If there is any place where a strategy of self-determination should be implemented it’s a place where our people are the clear majority and where issues of race can actually be succumbed to ideas on how to improve the lives of people. The south allows us to argue in an unapologetic way, our case that the way out of this economic, social and cultural mess of our community, in terms of electoral work, is to support candidates that are connected to the concept of self-determination, the use of the government apparatus to serve the needs of the local community and direct resources to those communities. Candidates with the politics of self-determination look to support the creation of institutions and control of institutions through the community. Candidates steeped in the tradition of self-determination come from an established base that can hold them accountable to their politics.

There is a practice that is beginning to catch fire amongst left organizers in the states that are involved in electoral politics, that we have borrowed from our comrades in Latin America, that is Peoples’ Assembly’s. Gathering the community into an organized bloc that begins to set the agenda for what candidates that are elected should be fighting for as opposed to just hearing what candidates are saying they are going to do, we only support people who run on what the community has determined is in their self interest. Making candidates responsive to our community needs must be done in an intentional way, one that involves planning for what the city/community should look like and how should it be governed.

Jackson seems to be an ideal place to start such a campaign. To see if the Black public when given the option of politicians who are moderate democrats versus a candidate who believes in Black self determination, who would they choose. In a national election the Black majority was well rehearsed to say that race did not matter as 95% voted for the Black candidate. In this local election where all the candidates were Black, what separated the candidates was their politics and their plans for the future of Jackson. The other seven candidates sounded the same. They were for winning the City Council seat but had no ideas about what to do with it. Only one candidate based on his history in the movement for self-determination was prepared with ideas on what needs to be done in his district and the rest of the city, based on conversations with his soon to be constituents.

On May 19, 2009 the anniversary of the birth  of Malcolm X, the politics of self-determination was the clear winner in Jackson, with little resources but lots of support the electorate in Ward 2 voted in overwhelming numbers for a out-spoken revolutionary nationalist to represent the interest of the community, they voted for beginning the process to transform the local government apparatus into a vehicle for economic and political change, guided by the principle of self-determination.

 

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A view from 2013

Many people I know expressed surprise at me moving to Jackson, MS, being from Brooklyn (back when it was the BK- but that is another story).[2] The surprise is even more startling for Jackson folks under 30 who with amazement in their eyes ask WHY WOULD YOU LEAVE NEW YORK? Part of the answer is that I have committed myself to the fulfillment of certain ideas. So my career is the politics of Black self-determination. It does not pay well by any means; you can’t always get the most qualified people to fulfill certain positions and the hours suck; but over 20 years ago I was bitten by the bug of revolutionary Black politics. Those politics have cost me financially and sanity wise, but at the same time they have led me on a life mission, some great comrades and the love of my life. So on balance I still feel as if I am coming out ahead, however back to Jackson, MS.

I would like to believe that as a committed organizer that the work I do has a larger purpose. That it is coordinated in such a way to gain results that are tangible and that build towards greater community control over social, economic and political institutions. I came to Jackson, MS with such ideas in mind. The thinking is that the city of Jackson due to its size, demographic makeup and history could be a great place to re-test ideas both historic and current in the struggle for Black self-determination.

It is way too early to suggest success; however my first twelve weeks in Jackson is a good guide to early satisfaction with the actual move. I have done more multilayered organizing here than I have in the last 5 years in either New York or Atlanta. I have met and worked with various groups and individuals from people in community civic leagues, church groups, home associations, electoral candidates, cops, preachers, politicians, farmer groups, civil rights workers, and international allies, but relatively few of the pro-Black militants or overt left radicals that I have worked with most of my organizing life. Obviously most of these folks don’t necessarily share the full range of my politics but we have enough in common to work on various initiatives that can lead to progressive/radical changes in Jackson. My debates have been substantive and have led to action as opposed to conversations that only ignite plans without success because of follow thru abilities, desire, finances, scale, or scope. I have worked on achieving economic development, international solidarity, electoral strategies, and food justice issues.

More specifically we have already established the largest community garden/farm in Jackson (over 5 acres). A campaign for policy changes on healthy food is in the works. We have supported the successful election of the first Black Sheriff in Hinds County Mississippi (Hinds was incorporated in 1820), which encompasses Jackson and is over 70% Black. This is a victory coming on the heels of electing Chokwe Lumumba to the city council two years ago. We are now beginning work on a second city-council race and looking into buying property for a center and we have purchased our fist property for economic development purposes.

The overt work of struggling for self-determination in the south predates me by a few hundred years; however 40 years ago the groundwork was laid for a modern struggle that recognized the south as a battleground in an ideological and at times physical battle for self-determination. In 1968 the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) was formed and later in the 1980s the New Afrikan Peoples Organization (NAPO) provided a revolutionary nationalist position for organizing in the South where the majority of Black people still live today. People have changed their lives, uprooted their families and died for attempting to convince Black people that the south could be more than just a place of oppression but it could also be a place of rejuvenation and control.

Two years ago a new phase of this struggle began. Momentum has been built over that time when we got directly involved in the previously mentioned electoral candidacy of Chokwe Lumumba for City Council. We made several other attempts in nearby cities to do similar work but the time seemed overtly right this time to focus on Jackson, MS.

As noted previously, the majority Black centers in the south are dominated by moderate Black Democratic Party careerists. The political void left by the retreat of the Black social movements of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s was filled by “safe” politicians who did not do much to upset the economic balance of power that favored white power brokers and embraced moderate Democratic Party rhetoric and positioning on governing. As a result, Jackson is in many respects like post apartheid South Africa, where Black electoral power never translated into actual political power, and in the main only supported the Black petty-bourgeois class happy to live off the scraps of the minority white capitalist class that really calls the shots.

It is in this context that MXGM saw an opening to support the candidacy of Chokwe Lumumba. For the Black political class the needs of the community take a back seat to their own individual career paths. With no commitment to anything, beyond getting elected these officials don’t bring any overarching principles to city-government beyond the principle of careerism. This gave us the opportunity to respond with a candidate who could highlight real choices. In no other place except the South could we play on a city wide basis, where over 50% of the U.S. Black population still lives and where in major cities in the South blacks still represent over 50% of the electorate. It is here where we can highlight the politics of self-determination versus the politics of careerism and moderation.

We have also borrowed from our friends in places like Venezuela with the concept of Peoples’ Assemblies. Organizing the community into specific blocs for a more direct democracy that begins to set the agenda for what candidates that are elected should be fighting for as opposed to just hearing what candidates say they are going to do. This work must be done in an intentional way, one that involves planning for what the city/community should look like and how it should be governed. Even if candidates don’t overtly share our politics they are responsive to them for the first time. In addition the Peoples’ Assembly is a larger base where policy through community organizing can be achieved. We are developing Assemblies for each of the seven wards in Jackson and by the beginning of 2012 we should be supporting the start of two additional Assemblies in Jackson.

On the challenging side the politicizing of young people will take a while. The idea of politics being outside of mainstream discussions is now a foreign concept to many young people. The idea that life chances are all about personal responsibility now once again dominate discourse and that will change only through more victories. In addition despite my needed respite from only working with “professional” organizers the need to expand what we have is great if we are to keep the momentum going. As Lenin and others have pointed out the vanguard party cannot easily be discarded when thinking through strategy and planning.

We hope to facilitate several mechanisms for people close to us to move to Jackson through some of our economic development plans, but that is a few years away. Unlike the past where activists would move based on what were the strategic needs of a movement they were a part of, today’s organizer is less likely to make such a move unless it’s tied to the adventure of an international struggle or a semi-natural disaster. We don’t want to overwhelm Jackson with transplants but I believe with ten more trained organizers steeped in the politics and practice of self-determination we could test our theories that much faster. My goal and hope is that within two years this work will produce real results in making Jackson a capital of Black progressive change and positioning the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement to serve as a leading community force, that even if not liked by all, will certainly be recognized as one to reckon with.


  1. An earlier version of this article was originally written and published in September 2009 on Kamau Franklin’s blog, Grassroots Thinking https://grassrootsthinking.com/2009/09/29/the-new-southern-strategy-the-politics-of-self-determination-in-the-south/.
  2. As part and parcel of his political commitment, Kamau Franklin moved to Jackson, MS in 2011 to help advance the work of the Jackson-Kush Plan, which he played a central role in constructing as a core member of the strategic think tank within the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that devised the plan between 2001-2012. An earlier version of this article first appeared in Organizing Upgrade http://www.organizingupgrade.com/index.php/modules-menu/community-organizing/item/46-kamau-franklin-the-new-southern-strategy.

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