In June 2017, the young black attorney Chokwe Antar Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, with 93 per cent of the vote. He pledged to make the capital of this former slave state ‘the most radical city on the planet’. Kali Akuno describes the grassroots mobilisation that launched him to office

major progressive initiative is underway in Jackson, Mississippi. It demonstrates tremendous promise in making a major contribution towards improving the overall quality of life in the city, particularly for people of African descent. The ‘Jackson Plan’ is spearheaded by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and the Jackson People’s Assembly.

The Jackson Plan is an initiative to apply many of the best practices in the promotion of participatory democracy, solidarity economics and sustainable development, and combine them with progressive community organising and electoral politics.

Three pillars 

The plan has three fundamental components designed to build a mass base with political clarity, organisational capacity and material self-sufficiency.

People’s assemblies

The roots of our assembly model are drawn from the spiritual or prayer circles that were organised, often clandestinely, by enslaved Africans – to express their humanity, build and sustain community, fortify their spirits and organise resistance. The vehicle gained public expression in Mississippi with the organisation of ‘Negro Peoples Conventions’ at the start of reconstruction to develop autonomous programmes of action to realise freedom as blacks themselves desired it and to determine their relationship to the Union.

The people’s assemblies that MXGM is working to build in Jackson and throughout the state of Mississippi are designed to be vehicles of black self-determination and autonomous political authority of the oppressed peoples and communities in Jackson.

A comprehensive electoral strategy: mounting an effective defence and offence

From police violence to the divestment of jobs and public resources, there are many challenges facing our communities that require us to lever every available means of power to save lives and improve conditions. Electoral politics can create political openings that provide a broader platform for a restoration of the commons, create more public goods utilities (for example, universal healthcare, public pension schemes, government-financed childcare and comprehensive public transportation) and the democratic transformation of the economy. One strategy without the other is like mounting a defence without an offence or vice versa. Both are critical to advancing authentic, transformative change.

MXGM firmly believes that at this stage in the struggle for black liberation the movement must be firmly committed to building and exercising what we have come to regard as ‘dual power’ – building autonomous power outside the realm of the state (i.e. the government) in the form of people’s assemblies, and engaging electoral politics on a limited scale with the expressed intent of building radical voting blocs and electing candidates drawn from the ranks of the assemblies themselves.

Building a local solidarity economy

The critical third pillar of the Jackson Plan is the long-term commitment to build a local solidarity economy that links with regional and national solidarity economy networks to advance the struggle for economic democracy.

Solidarity economy as a concept describes a process of advancing cooperative economics that promote social solidarity, mutual aid, reciprocity and generosity. It also describes the horizontal and autonomously-driven networking of a range of cooperative institutions that support and promote the aforementioned values, ranging from worker cooperatives to informal affinity-based neighborhood bartering networks.

Our conception of solidarity economy is inspired by the Mondragon Corporation, a federation of mostly worker cooperatives and consumer cooperatives based in the Basque region of Spain. It also draws from the best practices and experiences of the solidarity economy and other alternative economic initiatives already in motion in Latin America and the US.

We are working to make these practices and experiences relevant in Jackson, and to facilitate greater links with existing cooperative institutions in the state and elsewhere that help broaden their reach and impact on the local and regional economy. The solidarity economy practices and institutions that MXGM is working to develop in Jackson include:

  • Building a network of cooperative and mutually reinforcing enterprises and institutions, specifically worker, consumer and housing cooperatives, and community development credit unions as the foundation of our local solidarity economy
  • Building sustainable, green (re) development and green economy networks and enterprises, starting with a green housing initiative
  • Building a network of local urban farms, regional agricultural cooperatives, and farmers’ markets. Drawing heavily from recent experiences in Detroit, we hope to achieve food sovereignty and combat obesity and chronic health issues in the state that are associated with limited access to healthy and affordable foods and unhealthy food environments
  • Developing local community and conservation land trusts as a primary means to begin the process of reconstructing the commons in the city and region by decommodifying land and housing.
  • Organising to reconstruct and extend the public sector, particularly public finance of community development, to be pursued as a means of rebuilding the sector to ensure there is adequate infrastructure to provide quality health care, accessible mass transportation, decent, affordable public housing, etc.
  • In building along these lines, we aim to transform the economy of Jackson and the region as a whole to generate the resources needed to advance this admittedly ambitious plan.

Lessons and warnings

The Jackson Plan is a major initiative in the effort to deepen democracy and build a solidarity economy. To the extent that this plan calls for a critical engagement with electoral politics, we take heed of the lesson and warning issued by Guyanese professor Walter Rodney:

‘I say this very deliberately. Not even those of us who stand on this platform can tell you that the remedy in Guyana is that a new set of people must take over from an old set of people and we will run the system better. That is no solution to the problems of Guyana. The problem is much more fundamental than that.

‘We are saying that working-class people will get justice only when they take the initiative. When they move themselves. Nobody else can give [freedom] as a gift. Someone who comes claiming to be a liberator is either deluding himself or he is trying to delude the people. He either doesn’t understand the process of real life, or he is trying to suggest that you do not understand it. So long as we suffer from a warped concept of politics as being leadership, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.’

We draw two lessons from this statement and the history associated with it. One, that to engage is to not be deluded about the discriminatory and hierarchal nature of the system, nor deny its proven ability to contain and absorb resistance, or to reduce radicals to managers of the status quo. We have to fight in every arena to create democratic space to allow oppressed and exploited people the freedom and autonomy to ultimately empower themselves.

The second lesson regards leadership. MXGM believes that leadership is necessary to help stimulate, motivate, and educate struggling people, but that leaders and leadership are no substitutes for the people themselves, nor for an autonomous mass movement with distributed or horizontal leadership.