Chokwe Lumumba, 66, Dies; Activist Who Became Mayor in Mississippi

Chokwe Lumumba, 66, Dies; Activist Who Became Mayor in Mississippi

By FEB. 26, 2014


Chokwe Lumumba Credit Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Chokwe Lumumba, a civil rights lawyer who once called for an independent black-majority country in the American Southeast before running for mayor of Jackson, Miss., last year, winning handily, died on Tuesday in Jackson. He was 66.

His family said the cause had not been determined.

As a political activist, Mr. Lumumba campaigned for the United States to pay billions of dollars to blacks as reparations for their ancestors’ enslavement.

As a lawyer, he helped the rapper Tupac Shakur in a successful effort to clear himself of assault charges in 1993; he persuaded Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi to release two sisters from a Mississippi prison in 2011 after they had served 16 years for an armed robbery that they said they had not committed; and he defended self-styled revolutionaries charged with robbing a Brinks armored car in 1981 in Rockland County, N.Y., and murdering three people in the process.

In Jackson, the state capital, Mr. Lumumba earned respect as a civic leader and a successful youth basketball coach and won election to the City Council in 2009. In a city that is 80 percent black and has had a black mayor since 1997, he was urged by neighbors and politicians to run for mayor last year as a Democrat. He won with 87 percent of the vote.


Mr. Lumumba with Fulani Sunni Ali, whom he defended on charges related to the robbery of a Brinks armored car in 1981. Credit Richard Drew/Associated Press

His major issue was the pragmatic one of fixing streets and sewers. In January, Mr. Lumumba persuaded voters to accept a one percent sales tax to pay for the improvements. His slogan: “One city, one aim, one destiny.”

Mr. Lumumba had earned a reputation as an aggressive defense lawyer, particularly in police brutality cases. He did not hesitate to challenge judges in the courtroom. Several cited him for contempt and reprimanded him. He spent three days in jail after appealing one such reprimand. In 2004, his Mississippi law license was taken away for six months.

He was born Edwin Finley Taliaferro in Detroit on Aug. 2, 1947, the second of eight children. He told an interviewer that as an 8-year-old he had been horrified when his mother showed him a magazine picture of the brutalized body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who had recently been murdered in Mississippi after being accused of flirting with a white woman in a grocery store. The case helped spark the civil rights movement.

Edwin was later at his mother’s side on the streets of Detroit as she passed out literature for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization. He attended Roman Catholic schools and in high school was student council president and captain of the football team.

He recalled that when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he was so distraught that he changed his name to Chokwe Lumumba (pronounced SHOW-kway Luh-MOOM-buh). Chokwe was the name of one of the last African tribes to resist the slave trade. He took the name Lumumba after Patrice Lumumba, the African leader who led what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in its successful fight to win independence from Belgium in 1960.

Chokwe Lumumba, a student at Kalamazoo College at the time of Dr. King’s assassination, joined students at Western Michigan University, which is also in Kalamazoo, in taking over a campus building, demanding more scholarships for blacks and more black professors.

After graduating with a degree in political science in 1969, he earned a law degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Around the same time, he joined the Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist group that advocated a majority-black republic in the American South, becoming its second vice president.

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He soon traveled with the group to Hinds County, Miss., which includes Jackson. He became the New Afrika justice minister and led negotiations with unfriendly neighbors and law enforcement agencies. The group eventually left Jackson.

In 1976, Mr. Lumumba returned to Detroit to work as a public defender. Two years later he set up his own law firm to handle civil rights cases.

In the Brinks case, he defended Fulani Sunni Ali, the Republic of New Afrika’s information minister, who was originally known as Cynthia Boston. The presiding judge, saying Mr. Lumumba had used the proceedings to promote a “propaganda campaign” on behalf of the New Afrika group, threw him off the case, which was being tried in federal court in Manhattan. Civil libertarians criticized the judge, saying he had infringed on the defendant’s right to choose her own lawyer. Charges against Ms. Ali were dropped in 1981.

Later, in a separate proceeding, Mr. Lumumba won the acquittal of Ms. Ali’s husband, Bilal Sunni Ali, formerly William Johnson, but was cited for contempt for arguing with the judge. Mr. Lumumba began his summation by exclaiming the group’s slogan, “Free the Land!” He went on to compare the prosecutor to a dishonest “used-car salesman.”

Mr. Lumumba returned to Mississippi in 1988, and applied to practice law. Three years later, his application was accepted.

In the Shakur case, in 1993, the rap star became involved in a shooting melee with two off-duty police officers in Atlanta. Charges filed against Mr. Shakur and one of the officers were dropped. (Mr. Shakur was murdered in 1996 in Las Vegas.)

Mr. Lumumba’s wife, Nubia, died in 2003. He is survived by his sons Kambon Mutope, Thurman Lumumba and Chokwe Antar Lumumba; his daughter, Rukia Lumumba; and one grandson.

Mr. Lumumba hardly moderated his views in recent years. In an interview last year he continued to defend the Republic of New Afrika. The day after his election, he raised hackles by questioning Columbus’s historical importance. And at his inauguration, he could not resist raising his fist in the black power salute and shouting an old slogan: “Free the Land!”

Correction: March 10, 2014
An obituary on Feb. 27 about Chokwe Lumumba, a civil rights lawyer who became mayor of Jackson, Miss., misstated the year that he persuaded Gov. Haley Barbour to release two sisters from a Mississippi prison after they had served 16 years for an armed robbery they said they had not committed. It was 2011, not 1996.