Water crisis tests Mississippi mayor who started out as an activist

JACKSON, miss. – The mayor of the Mississippi capital was 5 years old when his parents moved their family from New York to Jackson in 1988 so that his father, who was involved in a black nationalist movement in the 1970s, could get back to the unfinished business of fighting of inequality and fight against racial injustice.

“Rather than shielding their most valuable resource, their children, from the movement or movement work, they felt they would give us for that,” said Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, now 39.

Lumumba describes himself as a “radical” who is “uncomfortable in oppressive conditions”. As a Democrat in his second term as mayor, he faces a high-pressure leadership test as Jackson fights to consistently produce a basic requirement of life – safe, clean drinking water.

The city has water problems for decades. Most of Jackson was recently without running water for several days after heavy rains exacerbated problems at a water treatment plant. Before that happened, the city was under a boil-water notice for a month because state health officials found cloudy water that could cause illness. Thousands of people lost running water during a cold snap in 2021.

Jackson’s population and tax base eroded as the predominantly white middle class moved to the suburbs about a decade after the integration of public schools in 1970. More than 80% of Jackson’s 150,000 residents are black. The city’s poverty rate of 25% is almost double the national rate.

“I see a community that has often been left out of the equation, that has been treated disproportionately in terms of resource equity,” Lumumba told The Associated Press. “And that’s why I think it’s imperative that someone speak up for them and someone speak out on these issues.”

Emergency repairs are being made at Jackson’s two water treatment plants. The water pressure has been restored. And this despite the fact that Republican Gov. Tate Reeves announced it on September 15 People can drink water from the tap again Seven weeks after the boil, the state health department says pregnant women or young children should take precautions because lead levels were previously found in some homes in Jackson’s water system.

Lumumba’s supporters say the mayor cares deeply for Jackson but faces opposition from Republican leaders and has inherited extensive problems from previous city governments, including an unreliable billing system that undercut repair and maintenance revenue.

But critics say Lumumba has failed to provide clear leadership — it has allowed dangerous understaffing at the treatment plants, masked concerns expressed by the Environmental Protection Agency and failed to provide detailed budget proposals for water system repairs.

Othor Cain, a Jackson radio host, is among the critics. Cain tutored Lumumba in Sunday school at a Methodist church when Lumumba was young. He described the mayor as “a nice guy” and a talented speaker. But he said Lumumba has not surrounded himself with strong managers and has faltered in building working relationships with other elected officials.

“You can’t blame it for the ancient water system and infrastructure,” Cain said. “But you can blame him from 2017, when he was elected, for doing nothing.”

Robert Luckett, a civil rights historian, was appointed a member of the Jackson school board by Lumumba. Luckett said he respects the mayor and believes he is doing a good job. Like many friends and acquaintances, Luckett calls Lumumba by his middle name.

“When Antar first ran for mayor and lost, and then ran and won, his campaign was driven by an idealism that was the hallmark of young career politicians,” Luckett said. “In his first term as mayor, the luster of that idealism was toned down a little.”

Republicans control the Mississippi legislature and all state agencies. Lumumba and most other Jackson officials are Democrats. Mayor and Gov. Reeves rarely spoke to each other prior to Jackson’s recent water crisis, and they have only appeared together a handful of times since the beginning.

The day after announcing the end of the boil-water notice in Jackson, the governor spoke at the opening of a store in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

“I have to tell you it’s a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It’s also, as always, a great day not to be in Jackson,” Reeves said. “I think I should take off my chief of emergency management hat and leave it in the car, and take off my chief of public works hat and leave it in the car.”

Lumumba is a lawyer and was a community organizer. He said he’s able to work with people who have different viewpoints.

“If you can only organize people who think like you, you’re not a great organizer,” he said.

Lumumba is the second person in his family to be Mayor of Jackson. The man he calls his hero, his father Chokwe Lumumba, was elected mayor in 2013 after serving on the city council for four years. Chokwe Lumumba convinced Jackson voters to approve a 1% local sales tax to fund infrastructure improvements. He died in 2014after less than nine months in office.

The elder Lumumba, a Michigan native, had lived in Mississippi in the 1970s and was active in a black nationalist organization, the Republic of New Africa. After practicing law up north for several years, he and his wife Nubia moved their family back to Mississippi.

The younger Lumumba said he spent part of his childhood working at Jackson’s Malcolm X Grassroots Center for Self-Determination and Self-Defense. He said the center has summer programs for young people, offering them political classes and recreational activities like swimming.

“I’m grateful to my parents for instilling this value system in my work today,” said Lumumba.

After the death of his father, the younger Lumumba ran unsuccessfully in a special election for mayor in 2014.

He won his first term as mayor in 2017 and easily won a second term in 2021. Lumumba said growing up and getting a law degree, he didn’t aspire to be mayor but prayed that God would use him to do great work.

“I believe the Lord keeps our prayers in vials and they are like a sweet smelling aroma to Him,” said Lumumba, who attends a non-denominational Christian church. “So the prayer I did when I was about 8 years old he remembered and I think that’s why I’m in position here.”

Corey Lewis of Gulfport, Mississippi said he and Lumumba are best friends. They met in 2001 when Lewis was a student at Tougaloo College and Lumumba was graduating from Jackson’s Callaway High School.

“He cares about the city of Jackson like it’s a passion,” Lewis said. “We could have fun outside or go on a field trip and he’d be like, ‘Man, I just don’t know what to do in this situation.'”

However, Cain said he thinks running a city is a bigger task than current Mayor Lumumba anticipated.

“I just think there’s a difference between a politician or an elected official and a lawyer or an activist,” the radio host said. “I don’t think this guy made the transition.”

In a 2017 speech at Millsaps College in Jackson, Lumumba said that as the child of two activists, he tended to talk about big issues like social justice and self-determination.

“But as I quickly learned during the campaign,” he said, “when you knock on a gentleman’s or a lady’s door and talk about these great ideas, you’re met with a brother or a sister who says, ‘Yes, yes , that’s good, young brother, but how are you going to fix that pothole in the middle of my street?’”

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/09/30/water-crisis-tests-mississippi-mayor-who-started-as-activist/ Water crisis tests Mississippi mayor who started out as an activist

Sarah Y. Kim

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