Water crisis tests Mississippi mayor who started as activist

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Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba speaks at a Sept. 6, 2022, news conference, at City Hall. regarding updates on the ongoing water infrastructure issues. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. – The mayor of Mississippi's capital was 5 years old when his parents moved their family from New York to Jackson in 1988 so that his father, who had been involved in a Black nationalist movement in the 1970s, could return to the unfinished business of challenging inequity and fighting racial injustice.

“Instead of shielding their most precious resource, their children, from the movement or movement work, they felt that they would give us to it,” said Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, now 39.

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

The city has had 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. For a month before that happened, the city was under a boil-water notice 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 mostly white middle-class residents started moving to the suburbs about a decade after public schools integrated 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 equity of resources,” Lumumba told The Associated Press. “And so I believe that it is imperative that someone stand up for them and someone speak to those issues.”

Emergency repairs are being done at Jackson's two water treatment plants. Water pressure has been restored. And although Republican Gov. Tate Reeves announced Sept. 15 that people can once again drink water from the tap after seven weeks of the boil order, the state health department says pregnant women or young children should take precautions because of lead levels previously found in some homes on the Jackson water system.

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

Critics, though, say Lumumba has failed to provide clear leadership — allowing dangerous levels of understaffing at the treatment plants, obscuring concerns raised by the Environmental Protection Agency and not providing detailed budget proposals for fixing the water system.

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

“You can’t blame him for the age-old water system and the age-old 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 by Lumumba to serve on the Jackson school board. Luckett said he respects the mayor and believes he's 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, there was an idealism to his campaign that was the hallmark of early-career politicians,” Luckett said. “In his first term as mayor, the shine on that idealism was kind of taken off a little bit.”

Republicans control the Mississippi Legislature and all statewide offices. Lumumba and most other Jackson officials are Democrats. The mayor and Gov. Reeves rarely talked before Jackson’s latest water crisis, and they’ve only made a few appearances together since it started.

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

“I've got to tell you, it is a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It's also, as always, a great day to not be in Jackson,” Reeves said. “I feel I should take off my emergency management director hat and leave it in the car, and take off my public works director hat and leave it in the car.”

Lumumba is an attorney and has been a community organizer. He said he’s able to work with people who have different vantage points.

“If you can only organize people who think like you, you’re not much of an 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 four years on the city council. Chokwe Lumumba persuaded Jackson voters to approve a 1% local sales tax to fund infrastructure improvements. He died in 2014, after 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 Afrika. After he practiced law in the 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 had summer programs for young people, offering them political lessons and leisure activities such as swimming.

“I’m grateful to my parents for giving me that value system in my work today,” Lumumba said.

After his father died, the younger Lumumba ran unsuccessfully in a special mayoral election in 2014.

He won his first term as mayor in 2017 and easily won a second term in 2021. Lumumba said as he was growing up and earning a law degree, he did not aspire to become mayor but prayed God would use him to do big work.

“I believe that the Lord keeps our prayers stored up in vials and they’re like a sweet-smelling aroma to him,” said Lumumba, who attends a nondenominational Christian church. “So, the prayer that I made at like around 8 years old, He remembered and I think that is 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, that is a passion,” Lewis said. “We could be out having fun or going on a trip and he’d be like, ‘Man, I just don’t know what I’m going to do about this situation.'"

Cain, though, said he thinks leading a city is a larger job than the current Mayor Lumumba anticipated.

“I just believe there is a difference between a politician or an elected official than an advocate or an activist,” the radio host said. “I don’t think this guy has been able to make the transition.”

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

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


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

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