CRITICAL EXAMINATIONS

13 The City as Liberated Zone: The Promise of Jackson’s People’s Assemblies

Makani Themba-Nixon

“Hey, uh, we didn’t get our forty acres and a mule
But we did get you, CC…”

—Lyrics from Chocolate City as recorded by Parliament

Jackson, MS, is the site of an important political project: to build a people-centered democracy based on the principles of self-determination and cooperative economic and social relations. It was literally centuries in the making, drawing from African systems and African American social experiments dating before the 18th century. The People’s Assembly is an important component of this project as it is the primary forum for resident engagement. Yet, to simply refer to the People’s Assembly as an engagement strategy would belie its important political purposes as well as the deep philosophical framework from which it grew.

Local Governance as Black Self Determination: A Rich Legacy

The Jackson effort is rooted in a long tradition of the city as a site of struggle for Black liberation. The concentration of Black people in urban areas during the 20th century, peaking at more than 80 percent in cities by 1970, necessarily made cities (especially northern cities) a critical site for organizing Black people.  Even prior to the “Black Power” era of the late 1960s and 1970s, there were several important experiments in Black governance in the early 20th century. These projects were often post slavery havens created by and for Black people: Allensworth, California; Eatonville, Florida; Blackdom, New Mexico; Hobson City, Alabama; Greenwood, Oklahoma; and Mound Bayou, Mississippi. There were more than 100 Black communities in all, bound together by shared dreams of Black Power and community control. Most of these places did not survive the constant assault of legal, economic, state sanctioned and vigilante violence. Yet, they left a powerful legacy that informed local organizing in the context of Black liberation.

In the 1970s, there was a second wave of local self-determination “projects” as a number of places specifically incorporated as cities in order to create spaces of Black power and control. These include Soul City in North Carolina (NC), an interesting collaboration between longtime civil rights leader Floyd McKissick, then Charlotte mayor and later NC gubernatorial hopeful Harvey Gannt; and East Palo Alto (aka Nairobi) in California. Accompanying this wave was an insurgent Black Power movement (mostly located in cities) where grassroots resistance and civil unrest forced the federal government to increase public investments in Black urban centers including revenue sharing, Head Start, and community action programs.

The Republic of New Afrika (RNA) and the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO) led a critical set of organizations that took up the mantle of Black self-governance as self-determination. Founded in the late 1960s, RNA has been advocating for an independent New Afrikan nation in what is now the southeastern part of the United States known as the Black Belt South. RNA and NAPO helped lead struggles for Black independence in the North and South and were influential in ushering in a “second wave” of local self-governing efforts in Black communities.

A number of factors, including aggressive state violence, deep cuts to social programs and the discontinuation of revenue sharing dramatically shifted how cities would be financed and governed. Amidst this backdrop of public and private divestment, the crack cocaine crisis and a significant rise in Black unemployment, Black people began what came to be known as the “reverse migration” as millions of Blacks moved to the South in search of jobs, a lower cost of living and a better quality of life.

Jackson Rising

The Black population in the south was on the rise and NAPO was positioned to accelerate its southern organizing efforts. Chokwe Lumumba was a part of a group of seasoned organizers that included Dr. Safiya Omari and Lumumba’s wife Nubia Lumumba (both venerable leaders and cadre in their own right) to help build out organizing efforts in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson’s high percentage of Black residents, high rates of poverty alongside its colleges and location as Mississippi’s capital made it an important site of struggle. Jackson was also hard hit by private sector divestment and public sector budget cuts. Unemployment was rising. There was a need for a more radical response to the city’s crisis. NAPO and its mass organizing vehicle, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), built on local radical traditions while helping to grow a progressive multiracial organizing community.

It was these organizing efforts, beginning in earnest in the late 1980s, that laid the foundation for the Jackson People’s Assemblies. The Peoples Assembly drew its inspiration from a number of sources including Mississippi’s century-old National Negro Convention Movement that started in 1831 and ended in 1864. The assemblies were created as a vehicle for engaging residents—especially grassroots residents—in the practice of self-determination and governance.

Prior to the Assembly, Jackson’s resident engagement was mostly in the form of neighborhood associations that were mostly focused on crime, beautification and the interests of property owners. A number of association members were absentee land owners whose primary stake in the city was the protection of their property. It was not until the advent of the People’s Assemby that Jackson’s large low income and mostly renter population had a forum for addressing their issues.

People’s Assemblies are a part of a long democratic tradition in progressive movements worldwide. They are essentially forums for mass engagement to address the issues that affect a community’s life. Assemblies can focus on issues or projects that are independent of government action and they can act as advocates to influence and make demands on government in their interests. The Jackson People’s Assembly did both.

The meetiangs of the Assembly were significant in at least five ways:

  1. They provided clear, formal venues for listening to the issues of local residents. This was particularly important given the significant number of organizers who were not Mississippi natives.
  2. They served as a training ground and leadership pipeline. Everything from outreach to meeting logistics provided opportunities to test new leadership, mentor new members and build skills. The assemblies were also intergenerational engaging a significant number of youth and elders providing yet another opportunity for learning and skills exchange.
  3. They provided a vehicle for coalition building around a broad agenda. As a vehicle for mass organizing, the assemblies allowed for engagement around a much broader set of issues and, as a result, attracted a diverse set of partners. As assemblies (pushed by residents) took on critical bread and butter issues like wages, land use and budgeting, they also took on their own political life.
  4. The focus on public policy pushed members into deeper engagement with governance structures—at the local and state level. Residents were trained on local budgeting and tax policy and the role of state agencies, the legislature and the governor in the decisions that affected Jacksonians quality of life. It also built a cadre of activated residents who learned how to conduct research on policy issues and make independent proposals to policymakers.
  5. Assemblies took on independent projects to improve quality of life which served as concrete examples of the power of self-determination and collective action. Assembly projects included the establishment of food gardens, clean up and beautification efforts.

The first assembly was organized in Ward 2, the home ward of Chokwe Lumumba. Based in North Jackson, Ward 2 is a mix of homeowners, stable working class renters as well as Tougaloo College. Although students played an important role in the development of the Assembly, (they volunteered to do outreach and other forms of support) much of the organizing was done by senior leadership with Lumumba playing a primary role.

Lumumba’s charisma, wit and sharp systemic analysis was an important factor in engaging residents. After decades of work in the community, Lumumba was a known quantity to residents. A number of the early NAPO organizers were still in the city organizing at various levels; however, there were no paid organizers whose focus was building the assemblies. In fact, it was primarily organized by NAPO/MXGM members some of whom served as staff working out of Lumumba’s law firm. These members essentially did double duty—helping to organize residents and working as part of Lumumba’s progressive legal practice.

Faith communities also played a critical role. For example, collaborators New Hope Baptist and Anderson South United Methodist were among the spaces where assemblies were convened. Churches not only hosted assemblies, they helped promote them and church members (including leadership) participated in assemblies. These partnerships were important because they helped to extend the limited infrastructure of MXGM and helped more strongly root the process with local leadership.

Into the Belly of the Beast

Originally conceived as an “outside” strategy to provide a space for resident engagement in building alternative, community serving forms of governance, the People’s Assembly quickly became a force to reckon with on city government issues as well. The Ward 2 Assembly was gaining momentum and residents from other wards expressed an interest in taking the People’s Assembly citywide. In the meantime, Lumumba’s active leadership in the Assembly as well as his extensive knowledge of municipal functions were increasingly in the spotlight. Residents made it known that they wanted a progressive leader like Lumumba on Jackson’s City Council and the base built through Assembly outreach turned to work to elect one of their own.

When Lumumba was successfully elected to represent Ward 2 in 2009, MXGM refocused efforts on building the People’s Assembly as a platform for resident voice and reshaping municipal policy. With a strong ally on council, the Assembly kicked off its Deepening Democracy campaign to organize low and moderate income Black communities. The goal was to develop progressive policy initiatives “around community/economic development, food security and health issues”—priorities identified in assemblies. By 2010, the People’s Assembly was the fastest growing organizing force in Jackson with more than 300 members citywide.

Training and political education was important to this process—both in terms of building hope and belief in people’s own ability to govern and make decisions together and in terms of residents’ understanding of the issues and what can be done to address them. Political education took place during the large assemblies, in the task forces (smaller groups charged with developing strategies for implementing priorities surfaced in the assemblies), and even during outreach efforts. Perhaps the most ambitious effort of the Assemblies was the engagement of residents in a participatory budget process—a process where large numbers of residents would collectively identify budget priorities for the city.

The process was modeled on best practices from the growing participatory budget movement with resident leaders working with MXGM organizers to develop the process. Lumumba participated in the political education process providing participants with information on city mechanisms and potential targets for change. Budget priorities were identified and delivered to the Council. Lumumba played a leadership role in advancing the issues on the Council by leveraging the fact that it was the only policy agenda developed directly by residents.

Over time, resident energies were increasingly split between independent, “self-determination” projects—like its cooperative garden projects and solidarity economy work—and its “reform” work to change municipal policy. Policy work was drawing more of the Assembly’s resources. And while residents were encouraged by the real and potential impact of policy work, they knew that they were going to have to build more power if they were to going to win their policies on Council.

By 2011, Assembly leaders were starting to focus on the next mayoral election. Many were frustrated with Jackson’s third term mayor, Harvey Johnson. Jackson’s first African American mayor, Johnson was perceived as a “safe” candidate firmly entrenched with business and other powerful interests. When Johnson announced that he was seeking a fourth term, there was growing sentiment that enough was enough. Residents actively recruited Lumumba to run for mayor as MXGM weighed the issues in the context of their long term organizing vision. By 2012, the Assembly network was in full swing working to build the citywide infrastructure necessary to support Lumumba in a mayoral run. Lumumba was elected in 2013 receiving 90 percent of the vote. The People’s Assembly agenda had moved from an outside campaign to the official platform of the mayor.

The People’s Assembly was now faced with the challenge of supporting the Lumumba Administration, which was leading efforts to advance its agenda, and maintaining an independent, “outside” presence in order to hold officials accountable (much less maintain its work to create alternatives). This challenge was exacerbated by the need to staff the Administration with people who shared the People’s Assembly vision and had the skills to help implement it. Virtually all of the organizers working on the People’s Assembly were called into service for the Administration with MXGM even recruiting organizers and staff from outside of Mississippi.

As the People’s Assembly and the Lumumba Administration infrastructure become increasingly interlinked, the work of the Assembly focused on moving its policy agenda through City Council. A critical challenge was funding. Jackson did not have the kind of tax base that allowed for the kind of resourcing the People’s Assembly agenda required. It was decided that Jackson should hold a referendum to raise the sales tax by 1 percent in order to generate additional revenues for infrastructure and other public improvements.

The People’s Assembly played a pivotal role in the successful referendum in 2014, holding educational forums and mobilizing people to get involved in the campaign. It also helped organize residents to push the state legislature to grant the city Jackson permission to hold the January 2014 referendum and continues to work to defend the increase and focus resources on the priorities surfaced in the People’s Assembly participatory budgeting process. This work is critically important in the wake of Mayor Lumumba’s untimely death a month after the referendum.

Reflections for the Future

The Assembly continues to play a vital role in the community’s life as it rebuilds in a post-Mayor Lumumba Jackson. They have focused more energies on the development of alternative structures through the launch of Cooperation Jackson—an initiative to help address the material needs of Jackson’s low income and working class communities through cooperative economic efforts. They have also pulled back some on their policy work but certainly not completely. Looking ahead, the Assembly faces some critical questions including: How can the People’s Assembly process more effectively engage local residents—especially Jackson’s working class and poor Black folk—as leaders and organizers in the Assembly structure? What will be the balance between its “inside” policy focus and its “outside” independent, alternative institution building? And what will Black Power look like in the context of Jackson’s class issues—especially addressing how a number of Black middle class leaders have opposed initiatives that address the needs and concerns of poor Black people?

Of course, there are no easy answers. What is certain is that the organizers will continue to draw on their rich legacy and emerging practice to forge new local, liberatory models.

This article first appeared at https://mxgm.org/the-jackson-plan-a-struggle-for-self-determination-participatory-democracy-and-economic-justice/

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Jackson Rising Copyright © 2017 by Makani Themba-Nixon. All Rights Reserved.

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