Ash-Lee Henderson participated in a Freedom Road Socialist Organization delegation to Jackson, Mississippi to support the Lumumba campaign during the Democratic Primary in May 2013. Both members and friends of Freedom Road participated in canvassing, poll-watching, sign holding and other activities to support Chokwe Lumumba and Joyce Hardwick, the two candidates recruited to run on the People’s Assemblies platform. In this interview she talks about why this campaign was so important; how Chokwe won despite fierce opposition; and what lessons we can take from this victory.
You’ve been down to work on the Chokwe campaign a number of times. Tell us about how you heard about the campaign and why you got involved? (follow up question: what kept bringing you back?)
Ash-Lee: I think the first time I heard about the Lumumba campaign was when members of People’s Durham told me about the campaign and invited folks from Tennessee to join them on their Black Belt Summer trip in June 2012. The Black Belt Summer trip included a stop in Jackson to learn about the People’s Assembly and do some ground work for the Lumumba campaign. I was not able to go along on that trip, but when the opportunity presented itself to go and help out the campaign during the Democratic primary, it was the People’s Assembly model and platform—the embodiment of direct democracy and self-determination—that made me feel I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I believe strongly that we must Organize the South and show solidarity between the Southern States. I understood that the campaign would be attacked from the right and from white supremacists with access to lots of money, so I wanted to be one in the number and bring other folks with me to support the campaign. I knew it would take a lot of folks on the ground doing canvassing, poll-watching, and sign holding, among other things to fight back against those attacks and the massive amounts of money from the opposition. I was able to bring 3-4 other folks with me from Chattanooga to work during the Democratic primary, the primary runoff, and the general election. We kept going back because the people kept winning and because of the relationships we built with the grassroots folks working on the campaign day to day.
You aren’t new to Mississippi, right? How do you see the Chokwe election in relation to the history you’ve been exposed to there?
Ash-Lee: I have family in Kilmichael, MS, and I have been going to Mississippi and organizing since 2004 when I participated in the Freedom Ride for Justice, a 3 week voter registration and education drive focused on getting young voters registered for the 2004 presidential election and raising awareness about the lack of justice in the Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner case—the three civil rights workers murdered in Neshoba County, MS during 1964’s Mississippi Summer Project. For a couple of years, I helped organize the Annual Mississippi Civil Rights Martyrs Memorial Service and Caravan for Justice.
The campaign definitely drew upon and was rooted in the legacy of resistance of Black people, the movement to build self-determination and participatory democracy, and the Black Freedom Movement in Mississippi. I don’t think this is a completion of that work, but it is a major people’s victory and a big step towards changing the material conditions of the 80% African American population in Jackson, the capitol city of Mississippi, which will have implications for the entire state. The campaign utilized the organizing traditions of the Black Freedom struggle in Mississippi—canvassing, attending churches, neighborhood barbeques, etc.. Veteran organizers from the struggle, like Hollis Watkins, were involved in the campaign. I think Lumumba being a card-carrying member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and identifying that way during the campaign was also in principle connecting back to that legacy.
Ok, you’re a socialist and a revolutionary. So why get involved in an election?
Ash-Lee: My desire to learn more about the theory of change being applied on the ground in Jackson, to investigate and see what was happening with my own eyes, to practice base building and solidarity in action, and to sum-up my experiences and lessons learned. Through personal investigation I found that, as a city councilperson, Lumumba was following the platform of the Ward 2 People’s Assembly and that he was chosen to run for mayor by the People’s Assembly. As Mayor he could put resources behind expanding the People’s Assembly model city-wide, and there are decisions and powers that the Mayor has access to that can make real gains for people–things ranging from what may seem small, like fixing potholes, to significant advances in the treatment of city workers and advancing economic development in equitable ways, including municipal support for worker-owned cooperatives.
It is important to note that this election is not primarily an electoral strategy, but is a small piece of a larger strategy—the Jackson-Kush Plan developed by Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the organization that provided initial leadership for the People’s Assemblies– that could change the power dynamics in the South. In a lot of ways Mississippi is the U.S. under a microscope. Participating in the campaign work to get Lumumba elected gave many of us an opportunity to learn more about what governing could look like, in Jackson, first-hand.
Sure there were concerns about whether or not the hype of Lumumba and his campaign would live up to what was happening on the ground—that these people were still revolutionaries, that they still had the people at heart, and were still trying to build struggle. When these concerns were raised with local people, what I heard in response were statements like, “Chokwe is going to enact our program. We, the people, will hold him accountable through the People’s Assembly process and through protesting where those conversations might fail.” MXGM and Lumumba are not trying to fool anyone into thinking this is the revolution or that it’s a completely revolutionary strategy, but winning victories for the people based on their own participation and self-determination builds bases of people and builds their power which pushes us closer to revolutionary change.
What were the biggest challenges that the campaign faced?
Ash-Lee: As can be expected, there were internal and external challenges. The external attacks against Lumumba, the intention to discredit him as a civil rights activist (which came from conservative, right-wingers, and ultra-leftists alike), attempts to discredit him as a person who believed in justice for all people, and paint him as the anti-white, scary, angry black man, backfired on the right, on wealthy, business-minded conservatives who thought that they would be able to play dirty tactics to win the election. There were ads taken out that said Lumumba was a “race traitor” and a “snitch” after the ads that falsely depicted him as a anti-Christian, anti-white, and anti-American failed in ushering support away from Lumumba. Racists began referring to Jackson as “Jafrica” (Jackson+Africa), which has since been reappropriated by several people who volunteered for the Lumumba campaign. After all their dirty tactics were exhausted, they still lost because the majority of people knew where those attacks were coming from and personally were connected to the campaign to elect Lumumba. The attacks on his character by some on the left, lost an opportunity to constructively talk about the kind of privilege that Lumumba had which could lead to him being identified as “the people’s candidate”, the real history of black elected officials becoming corrupt with power and losing sight of serving the people. All-in-all, I think the campaign handled these issues extremely well, by continuing great work in the community and not losing focus on building up their base.
I think internally there were challenges, such as coming up with a vision to govern that also has a realistic analysis of the concrete conditions of Jackson, and an implementable strategy that could change the material conditions of Jacksonians for the better. Once there was a vision, deciding what work would be deprioritized, coming to unity that, whether or not everyone in the collective believed that electoral politics was were they should be putting energy, everyone was needed to make this strategy work and holding each other accountable to that work was incredibly important. I think the success of the campaign proves that the activists involved took on this challenge and were successful in overcoming it.
Chokwe Lumumba is a leader of a radical black organization. How do you think he was able to win?
Ash-Lee: I think a combination of a few things: Chokwe was a candidate that the people knew. Because he defended their family members pro bono when they had cases that had to go before the court. He coached their kids on the black power basketball team. He’s gone to their church. He was someone that they were familiar with because he lived a life of service to the community before he ran for political office.
Because of his is connection to civil rights struggles, struggles for social justice, freeing the Scott sisters, defending Assata Shakur, and more, people knew of his politics and his commitment to social justice which I think worked in his favor. The canvassing and door knocking that happened was just unbelievable. We tried to touch as many people in Jackson as humanly possible, and that fruit of that labor came in the number of people who showed up to the polls and voted for Chokwe Lumumba.
So I think a combination of all of those things worked together to show people that Chokwe Lumumba was a candidate of the people that they could support. Even though he came from this revolutionary radical politic, he was just a regular everyday dude. He was the guy at the barbeques hosted in each of the seven wards in Jackson, hanging out with people’s children. He was someone that was easily approachable by activist and round-the-way folk alike.
The left and the black left hasn’t seen a lot of victories recently. Are there lessons that you are drawing for the left or the black left from the work in Jackson?
Ash-Lee: Yes. I think that, as Audre Lorde said, “When we fight, we win!” I think that the amount of work, the disciplined and principled work that the people in Jackson put into the campaign is the only way that they were ever going to have a chance of winning against the insurmountable amount of money that was being thrown at other candidates. Being disciplined, organized, and having a long term vision of where we are trying to go, got them a victory. I think that is something we could all learn from.
Being able to give people a vision of what self-determination and direct, participatory, democracy could look like, and being able to have The People’s Platform that was easily accessible to the people because it was, in fact, created by the people, were other lessons in how to get community buy-in for what some activists and community members would have defined as radical platforms. Many of us learned that when taking on these organizing responsibilities, that we can’t do everything. Learning from MXGM how they balanced out work that they had already been doing to be able to take on this extremely labor intensive goal was a lesson learned in how to prioritize work.
I am still trying to figure out what peoples assemblies look like in cities that aren’t 80 percent black, but I think that is something the left can figure out, and the black left in particular. Seeing all of these nationalist organizations, oppressed nationality and multinational mass organizations, and black left leaders in revolutionary organizations coming together, all on one accord, for one common goal, is something that I have never experienced in my tenure as someone who considers myself to be an aspiring revolutionary. So it was exciting to see that happen, and I am excited to see how we can grow from that, and continue to nurture the relationships that were built out of that opportunity. We are still summing up the experience of the campaign and what built to that moment. The work is not over. Just because the elections have been won doesn’t mean that the whole vision of what the people of Jackson are working for has been completed. There is still plenty of practice and summation to be done. Just the preliminary processes of summation of the election itself has given us a lot of valuable knowledge that we continue to use in trying to rebuild the Black liberation movement, and to try and build a strategic alliance between the multinational working class and oppressed nationality movements.
Do you think what’s happened in Jackson can happen in other places or is there something unique about Jackson?
Ash-Lee: I think there is still a lot of investigation to do but I definitely think there are other places that could implement similar experiments. I don’t think it will end up being exactly like Jackson. One of the major differences between Jackson and many other places is that Jacksonians had a Chokwe Lumumba, with such broad name recognition that not only did community members in Jackson know of him and his good works, so did folks across the state and across the country. This definitely led to folks being aware of who Lumumba is in a way that encouraged excitement, a desire to travel to Jackson from other places and support his candidacy. I don’t know if that could happen everywhere else and generate that type of support for other candidates.
Jackson has unique conditions considering it’s an 80 percent black city. I think that impacted the election for sure. Jackson has a specific set of material conditions that bent the trajectory of our work towards victory, but I don’t think that makes it impossible to implement this experiment in other places. I am excited about continuing investigation where I live to see if this is something that could benefit working class, folks of color in my own backyard. This is definitely a strategy that the south needs to be taking very seriously.
About the author: Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson is a long time, multi-issue activist and organizer who has planned and participated in non-violent civil disobedience against the coal industry and legislation attacking the rights of workers. She has organized around issues of community empowerment, environmental destruction, mountaintop removal coal mining, and environmental racism in central and southern Appalachia. She is an active member leader of Concerned Citizens for Justice in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which works to end police brutality, racial profiling, and mass incarceration. She is a 28 year old, Affrilachian (Black Appalachian), working class womyn, born and raised in Southeast Tennessee.Download this piece as a PDF