Saturday, March 1, 2014

Chokwe Lumumba, Former Republic of New Afrika Justice Minister, Dies at 66

Lumumba with fellow New Afrika cabinet member
Fulani Sunni Ali in the 1980s
Chokwe Lumumba, the radical Black nationalist separatist and civil-rights lawyer who became the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, died in Jackson on February 25th, at the age of 66.

Lumumba was Minister of Justice for the provisional government of the Republic of New Afrika (R.N.A.), a proposed Black-ruled nation-state consisting of the five states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina.  (Other proposals envisioned African-American-majority counties in neighboring states included as well.)

Lumumba was born Edwin Finley Talafierro in Detroit, Michigan, in 1947.  He changed his name to Chokwe Lumumba in the wake of the trauma of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which occurred while Talafierro was attending Kalamazoo College.  The name derived from the Chokwe (also spelled Tchokwe) ethnic group, in today’s eastern Angola and neighboring regions, which valiantly resisted the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and Patrice Lumumba, the first president of the independent Republic of the Congo (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or D.R.C.).

Congolese rebel-turned-president Patrice Lumumba,
Chokwe’s namesake
(Ironically, there are separatist connections to each of these entities.  The militant Marxist–Leninist rebel Lumumba’s rise to power in 1960 prompted the Western-backed attempted secession of two mineral-rich regions in the Congolese south, Katanga and South Kasai, and after Lumumba’s execution in a coup d’état that year, his vice-president founded a rival Republic of the Congo based in the eastern city of Stanleyville (now Kisangani).  Meanwhile, the modern Tchokwe and Lunda people of Angola are involved in a low-level movement to bring into being a declared United Kingdom of Lunda Tchokwe (Tchifudji tcha Wanangana Wa Lunda Tchokwe), which would cover the eastern half of the country.)

Lumumba with his first wife, Anasi, in 1974
The New Afrika movement, which Lumumba joined in the late 1960s, was, as one might expect, not popular with federal authorities, who were in that era of the Black Power movement infiltrating and undermining Black nationalist groups.  Police raided the first R.N.A. national convention, in the Detroit church hosted by the Rev. C. L. Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s father), and the movement also attracted attention in 1968 by orchestrating the attempted secession from the United States of Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill–Brownsville neighborhood during the New York City teachers’ strike.  But the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) lost patience when, in 1971, the R.N.A. established a heavily-armed provisional government headquarters in the middle of Jackson, Mississippi.  As justice minister, Lumumba was closely involved in smoothing out relations as far as possible with neighbors and the police.  But he was out of town when SWAT teams with an armored vehicle launched a full assault on the compound, in which one policeman was killed.  The R.N.A. president, Imari Obadele, was given a long prison term and became one of the first Americans designated by Amnesty International as a political prisoner.  Lumumba and New Afrika’s First Vice-President, Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz, who was also not present during the raid, both evaded prosecution as the separatist movement was dismantled.

An early Republic of New Afrika press conference.
(I believe President Obadele is standing with arms folded on the right
and that Lumumba is in the glasses with the leopard-print accessories.)
Later, with his law degree from Wayne State University in Detroit, Lumumba gained fame for civil-rights cases in which he defended, among others, Fulani Sunni Ali, the R.N.A. information minister, charged in a New Afrika–linked bank heist, and, in 1993, the rapper Tupac Shakur, charged in a shoot-out with police.  He also successfully negotiated the release from prison, in 1996, of the sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott, who had been given life sentences 16 years earlier for stealing $11.00.

The flag of the Republic of New Afrika,
based on the pan-African tricolor first designed by Marcus Garvey
Lumumba had practiced law in Mississippi since 1988.  Last year, he won an election for mayor of Jackson, an 80% African-American city, with 87% of the vote.  Conservative critics attacked him for his radical past, but he was by all accounts a relatively moderate and pragmatic politician in his short tenure.

Lumumba as mayor, in 2013
In its heyday, the Republic of New Afrika was in some ways an elaborate publicity stunt, designed to draw attention to pressing issues African-Americans faced in that era.  As a republic, it was unworkable.  But Lumumba never gave up the dream.  At his mayoral inauguration, he raised his fist and shouted, “Free the land!”, the R.N.A. nationalist slogan.  And through an organization he founded, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), he developed what became known as the “Jackson–Kush Plan” which aimed for establishing “self-determination” through “People’s Assemblies” in an eighteen-county strip along the majority-black, western, riparian edge of Mississippi—to be called “Kush.”  The idea was not quite an independent state but a grass-roots, ethnically-defined “autonomous region.”  The idea of Kush had first been put forward by the New Afrikan Peoples Organization (NAPO), an R.N.A. offshoot, and some old R.N.A. maps show Kush as a sub-region of New Afrika in the same general area, and named, of course for the ancient kingdom on the Nile, with its symbolic resonances of the Old Testament flight to freedom after a period racially based slavery along a floodplain.

Upon hearing of his death, the civil-rights leader Ben Jealous said, “Chokwe Lumumba was one of the greatest civil rights lawyers of our time.  In the tradition of Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Darrow, he was steadfast in his determination to defend the rights of those who the system too often pretends have none.  I have worked with Chokwe to free wrongly incarcerated people since I was 21 years old, most recently the Scott Sisters.  He was a giant.  He will be sorely missed.”

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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