In Memory of a Fearless Man: The Night Chokwe Lumumba Took Netroots Nation to Church

On February 25, 2014, Chokwe Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, died due to heart failure.  

Remembrance by Robert Bray:

I had the honor of working with Chokwe Lumumba in Minneapolis, Minn., as he received a prestigious award for his courageous work on behalf of civil rights for African Americans and immigrants. It was a night that took an unexpected turn for Chokwe and me, as he found a new audience way beyond Mississippi for his message of justice, and an evening that most of us who were there will not soon forget.

We were backstage at the opening plenary of Netroots Nation, June 18, 2011. Netroots Nation is the preeminent gathering of social justice-oriented “techies” committed to amplifying progressive voices and using technology to influence the public debate. Imagine several thousand Millennials, most of them tweeting and Instagraming nonstop about justice and equality while downing mugs of coffee. It was a new crowd for Chokwe.

Chokwe was there to accept the Freedom From Fear Award, presented by the organization I work for, the Four Freedoms Fund. He was one of 15 “unsung heroes,” ordinary people who committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees — individuals who had taken a risk, set an example, inspired others to awareness or action.

His story was particularly galvanizing. As an African American then-member of the City Council of Jackson, Mississippi with a long history of activism in the civil rights movement, Chokwe, a seasoned civil liberties lawyer, wrote and helped pass a model anti-racial profiling ordinance, citing the unlawful targeting of immigrants in his state. His efforts helped create a much more positive climate in the city for immigrants.

But Minneapolis was a long way from Jackson. Chokwe, a somewhat reserved gentleman, was surrounded by packs of extra-wired, over- caffeinated young bloggers and Tweet-crazed internet activists that night. Still, the man possessed a calm, dignified, grounded, unwavering, deep sense of conviction and righteous presence. He was ready, we thought, to tell his moving personal story to an audience needing to be inspired by someone who had walked the walk.

Which is why those of us who produced the awards event had a jolt of dismay when we realized Chokwe, for some reason, had changed his speech at the last minute.

There he was backstage, holding a new version of his remarks, which, frankly, was a recitation of a very long, wordy, overly detailed formal speech probably meant for another audience, and written in long hand. Like something an attorney would give at a legal deposition, not to a ballroom of young activists with short attention spans. It was not what we practiced during the event rehearsal. Maybe the new audience and unusual venue distracted Chokwe from his game.

A polite intervention seemed in order, and that’s where I came in. Not that Chokwe Lumumba needed any advice on how to give a speech from me, mind you, considering he was an articulate and successful Southern politician who knew how to hold an audience.

Nonetheless, we sat Chokwe down in the backstage VIP area, right beside the table of Tania Unzueta, Reyna Wences and Rigo Padilla of Chicago’s Immigrant Youth Justice League, fellow awardees being honored for their work on behalf of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual , Transgender and other immigrants who were coming out the closet as undocumented. The young activists were still giddy and ecstatic from the standing ovation to their curtain-raising, “I’m undocumented and I’m unafraid” speech.
Everybody suggested to Chokwe that he might want to consider a different approach than a multi-page formal text and instead take a page from the youths’ playbook. Speak from the heart, tell your personal story, and other similar suggestions where respectfully offered.

Finally, I said to him, “Chokwe, you’re just about the final speaker of the night, the best saved for last, pretty much closing this long gig at the end of a long program, the audience is waning and in need of lifting up, and we want you to do one very important thing: Take us all to church!”

Which is what he proceeded to do live from the stage. He gave an impassioned, inspiring, transfixing account of real courage and triumph over fear and hatred in the Deep South, bridging the struggles for equality and basic human dignity of African Americans and immigrants in his community, his cadence rising and lowering like a preacher with each powerful exhortation. The spellbound audience loved it, their attention turning from their cell phones to this riveting Southern hero on stage, witnessing the real thing in real time. I don’t remember him even looking at his prepared text. The room erupted into applause.

Chokwe was a noble warrior and an incisive communicator who spoke truth to the deeply held social justice values of his Mississippi to a new audience who needed to hear it. That night he articulated an undeniably powerful message that touched people across generations because it was spoken from the heart but informed by a lifetime of experience and perseverance and courage.

We will miss that voice.


Robert Bray is communications director of Four Freedoms Fund/Public Interest Projects. He was schooled in the South but lives in San Francisco, California.

** UPDATE: Read more via the New York Times “Jackson Mourns Mayor With Militant Past Who Won Over Skeptics”

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