THE BLOG
02/28/2014 02:59 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

Rest in Power, Chokwe Lumumba

On February 25, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Lumumba, died due to heart failure. He had battled prostate cancer, and complained of chest pains before going to St. Dominic's hospital. He was mayor for less than a year.

When I lived in Jackson, Mississippi, Lumumba was my city councilman. One night while getting cold medicine at a neighborhood Walgreens after 1 a.m., I ran into Lumumba at the checkout counter. He called me by my first name, despite the fact that I had lived in his ward for less than a year. When I worked as the communications director for local attorney Patricia Ice's unsuccessful city council bid in 2011, Lumumba gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him whenever I needed to rely on his political network to drum up volunteer canvassers. Rather than simply mourning Chokwe Lumumba's passing, this column will celebrate his contributions.

In 2011, when the Mississippi legislature was attempting to pass a replica of Arizona's anti-immigrant SB 1070, Councilman Lumumba authored a resolution that would prohibit Jackson police officers from engaging in racial profiling. While the resolution didn't pass, it was a symbolic gesture and calculated political move made as a means of pre-empting the legislature's anti-immigrant bill should it pass (it didn't).

That same year, Attorney Lumumba successfully freed his clients, Jamie and Gladys Scott, after they had spent almost 16 years in jail for aiding a robbery in which a negligible amount of money, between $11 and $200, was stolen. The Scott Sisters had never committed any prior crimes, and the actual robbers took a plea deal after naming the Scott Sisters as their accomplices. Lumumba led a march of about 1,000 people through downtown Jackson in the days leading up to the Scott Sisters' release, putting pressure on Gov. Haley Barbour to grant clemency as his name was in the national spotlight as a possible 2012 presidential candidate.

Chokwe Lumumba was a longtime civil rights attorney who was moved to start his political career following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1969, he changed his name from Edwin Taliaferro, which he called his "slave name," to a name commemorating both the Chokwe tribe from Central Africa that fought slavery, and slain African independence leader Patrice Lumumba. He would later become Vice President of the Republic of New Afrika -- an organization advocating for Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to become one independent black nation. The RNA believed that without an independent black state, America's black citizens would never be represented in government.

While enrolled at Wayne State in 1969, Lumumba led a protest against what he alleged was a discriminatory grading system by WSU faculty. The protest turned into an occupation of the law school's administrative building, and he and 18 students would later sue the administration demanding the reinstatement of students who were failed, and an anonymous grading system to prevent further discrimination.

Lumumba told the Jackson Free Press in 2009:

Everybody got back in, and everybody but two people finished and became lawyers. Some of them became top-notch, well-respected lawyers. One of them is one of the best communication lawyers in the country. He was the one that had the lowest grade.

After graduating Cum Laude from Wayne State University's law school in 1975, Lumumba would go on to represent clients like rapper Tupac Shakur, whom he acquitted of aggravated assault charges stemming from a shooting of two off-duty police officers in Atlanta. He also represented Assata Shakur, aunt of Tupac, and got her acquitted of murder charges in 1977 in New York after the case itself was dismissed.

As an attorney, Lumumba's loose tongue got him into trouble. In 1996, Lumumba's client, Henry Payton, was convicted of bank robbery and arson. When the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the decision, a second trial was held and presided over by Leake County circuit judge Marcus Gordon. After Judge Gordon denied Lumumba's selection of jurors, allowed Payton to be walked into the courtroom in chains, and interrupted Lumumba during his opening statements, Lumumba told Clarion-Ledger reporter Jimmie Gates that the judge had "the judicial demeanor of a barbarian."

Lumumba was fined $800 for the incident, spent 3 days in Leake County Jail, and was later disbarred for six months by the Mississippi Supreme Court, before being reinstated in 2007. June Hardwick, who lost her bid for the Jackson City Council Ward 7 post, said Lumumba's punishment was excessive, and had less to do with his disrespectful remarks about a judge and more to do with his long track record of radical activism.

Hardwick wrote in 2005:

It is not the length of the suspension that troubles those who devoutly support Lumumba. Lumumba has been adequately punished already. A three-panel tribunal formed at the request of the Bar by the Supreme Court chief justice decided that to publicly reprimand was a sufficient punishment. The Bar decided otherwise.

Chokwe Lumumba won the Jackson mayoral race in Summer of 2013, defeating business-backed Jonathan Lee by nine percentage points. In his inauguration speech, he immediately came out against gentrification -- the practice of zoning land for commercial real estate development in blighted neighborhoods that drives up the cost of rent and pushes out impoverished residents.

"Gentrification is nothing but a war on the people who live in the city already," Lumumba said. "The aim is prosperity and security for every one of us."

One of Jackson's biggest problems while I lived there were the antiquated water pipes. The city's water infrastructure was over 100 years old, and after the end of each winter, once-frozen pipes thawed out, water mains would break, wasting hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. Jackson's roads also left much to be desired. One road, Riverside Drive, close to the University of Mississippi Hospital, was littered with potholes that made it impossible to drive faster than 20 miles per hour. Ron Chane, a popular graphic designer located in Jackson's Fondren neighborhood, even designed a t-shirt commemorating Riverside Drive's potholes. Mayor Lumumba proposed a one percent sales tax on a January 2014 ballot that would raise $350 million in new revenue to fix the water pipes and roads, which voters overwhelmingly approved.

Chokwe Lumumba will be irreplaceable as mayor, regardless of who is elected. America needs more mayors to stand up against gentrification, stand up for the marginalized, and invest in public infrastructure. Lumumba will be sorely missed.

(This article originally appeared on Reader Supported News.)