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National Lawyers Guild chapter to honor Wayne Law alumnus Lumumba

December 19, 2013

Long-standing civil rights activist serves as mayor of Jackson, Miss.

Chokwe Lumumba, a longtime civil rights activist and 1975 alumnus of Wayne State University Law School, will be honored Saturday, Jan. 25, by the Detroit and Michigan Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

Lumumba, who was sworn in as mayor of Jackson, Miss., in July, will serve as honorary host of the chapter’s annual dinner. He won the city’s election with a landslide vote on a platform of bringing change and self-determination to the city’s residents and the rest of Mississippi.

Lumumba, 66, decided early in his life that he could bring change and best serve the civil rights movement as a lawyer. He earned his law degree cum laude at Wayne Law, but he was a political activist by the time he was a teenager.

The early years

He was born in 1947 as Edwin Talliaferro (he later changed his name to embrace his heritage), one of seven siblings in a family living in a public housing project on Detroit’s west side. He was a young boy when his mother, always supportive of civil rights activism, showed him a photo of the mutilated, beaten body of 14-year-old Emmett Till published in Jet magazine in 1955. Till was an African-American boy snatched from a relative’s home and murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a white woman. Lumumba clearly remembers the impact of first seeing that photo.

“My mother was courageous in showing it to us and explaining it to us,” Lumumba said. “She told us this was a problem that went beyond this incident. She told us there was an epidemic of racism, an American disease. Later on in my life, when (Dr. Martin Luther) King (Jr.) was killed, this came back to me very vividly.”

Lumumba attended Detroit’s St. Theresa High School, where he began to be active in political protests. He served as student council president and captain of the football team. As a teen, he was deeply inspired by the words of King and by the writings of Malcolm X. When King was killed in 1968, when Lumumba was a political science student at Kalamazoo College. Lumumba said King’s assassination inspired him to take part in a student takeover of the University Center Building at nearby Western Michigan University – a protest to demand more scholarships for African-American students and the hiring of more African-American teachers.

Law school protest

In 1969, he entered Wayne Law – one of a few dozen new African-American students that year. A majority of them failed by the end of their first year.

“I wasn’t terminated, but most of my classmates were,” Lumumba said. “That was a shock to us. We demonstrated, seized the building and demanded that they be re-entered. It was an important time when significant numbers of blacks were, for the first time, going to Wayne and other predominantly white law schools in the North. It was the introduction of significant numbers of black students into the school.”

The protesters said their work wasn’t graded fairly and demanded changes. The law school denied the accusation but re-admitted the students anyway.

“And all but one or two turned out to be lawyers – strong legal professionals,” Lumumba said.

Republic of New Afrika

The future mayor, however, left law school the next year to move to Jackson, Miss., drawn by the heat of the civil rights movement there. He became active in the controversial Republic of New Afrika, a group he helped form to coordinate the actions of activists and give African-Americans more personal and political control. For a time, the group’s stated goal was to create a separate nation for black people in the South.

Lumumba, as a leader in the organization, became a target for the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, which raided the group’s meetings and arrested its members on several occasions.

“The U.S. government, through J. Edgar Hoover and others, was trying to destroy black groups or undermine them,” Lumumba said. “Much of this was brought to light later. We didn’t know exactly what was happening at the time. There was an attack on the RNA in August of 1971 by the FBI and the Jackson Police Department. They literally attacked the house the RNA was staying in – I wasn’t there at the time – and tried to kill a number of people inside. None of the RNA people got killed, but they shot back. One police officer was killed, one was wounded and one FBI officer was wounded. That started a long legal battle. It was that legal battle that showed me there was need for the skills a lawyer had.”

At about the same time, Lumumba re-read the epilogue in Malcolm X’s autobiography and found new inspiration there.

“Malcolm wanted to be a lawyer, and he was told by his teacher that wasn’t a realistic profession for him,” Lumumba said. “I decided to become the kind of lawyer Malcolm would have been.”

Civil rights defender

So, in 1973, Lumumba returned to Wayne Law, graduating cum laude two years later.

“I stayed in Detroit for 10 years, practicing law, mostly with some of my friends who had graduated with me,” he said. “The firm grew and had a very successful term of existence.”

He continued to be active in the civil rights movement and the community and defended many high-profile, controversial activists in court. In 1988, he moved back to Mississippi, where he continued to be a civil rights leader and to defend other activists.

“I don’t want anybody to think for a moment that I didn’t love Detroit,” Lumumba said. “I still do. The South has always suggested to me some prospects because of our large numbers. It was a place where we could be the majority in the government. The idea was to try to get black majority districts where we could get human rights into government. The South had appeal for that reason.”

He also saw Mississippi as a good place to raise his family, he said.

Elected leadership

For a few years, he worked as a public defender in Jackson, representing indigent clients, and he founded community organizations, including the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition after Hurricane Katrina.

Lumumba, throughout his legal career, often has found himself at odds with judges and state bar associations for his outspoken criticism of the system when he found it to be racist or unfair. But Jackson’s mayor believes in perseverance and in accepting challenges, no matter what the odds may be.

“One of the things that was good for me, and that I would encourage in young people, is to take on small challenges first,” he said. “Then you can start jumping bigger hurdles as you go along. It gets you stronger. As a student, I would never stoop to cheating or reading somebody else’s paper. Sometimes it takes an act of courage to not cheat, to not take the easy way. I think those kinds of challenges are good. Then you have honor, and it becomes a badge of courage. If there are ills you want to solve, overcome small issues in the present so you can confront bigger ones in the future.”

He was elected to a Jackson Ward Two council seat in 2009 and as mayor earlier this year with 85 percent of the vote against an opponent who outspent him many times over.

Lumumba continues to work hard to confront the challenges, big and small, in his new position of leadership.

“I am honored that the people of Jackson have decided to allow me to be their voice and to work to achieve the results we so justly deserve,” the mayor said.