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Water crisis tests Mississippi mayor who started out as activist

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – The mayor of the Mississippi capital was 5 when his parents moved their family from New York to Jackson in 1988 so his father, who had been involved in a black nationalist movement in the 1970s, could return to the unfinished business of challenging inequity and fighting racial injustice.

“Instead of protecting their most precious resource, their children, from the movement or the work of the movement, they felt they would give us away,” said Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, now 39.

Lumumba describes himself as a “radical” who is “uncomfortable with oppressive conditions”. A Democrat in his second term as mayor, he faces a high-pressure test of leadership as Jackson strives to consistently produce a basic necessity of life – safe, clean drinking water.

The city has had water problems for decades. Most of Jackson was recently without running water for several days after heavy rains exacerbated problems at a water treatment plant. For a month before it happened, the city had been under a boil water advisory because state health officials found cloudy water that could cause illness. . Thousands of people lost running water during a cold spell in 2021.

Jackson’s population and tax base eroded as middle-class, mostly white residents began moving to the suburbs about a decade after public schools were integrated in 1970. More than 80% of Jackson’s 150,000 residents are black. The city’s poverty rate of 25% is almost double the national rate.

“I see a community that has often been left out of the equation, that has been disproportionately treated in terms of resource equity,” Lumumba told The Associated Press. “And so I believe it’s imperative that someone stands up for them and someone speaks up about these issues.”

Emergency repairs are underway at Jackson’s two water treatment plants. The water pressure was restored. And although Republican Gov. Tate Reeves announced on September 15 that people could drink tap water again after seven weeks on a boil order, the state health department said women Pregnant or young children should take precautions due to lead levels previously found in some homes on the Jackson water system.

Lumumba supporters say the mayor cares deeply for Jackson but faces opposition from Republican state leaders, and he inherited significant problems from previous city administrations, including an unreliable billing system that has reduced revenue for repairs and maintenance.

Critics, however, say Lumumba has failed to provide clear leadership – allowing dangerous levels of understaffing at treatment plants, obscuring concerns raised by the Environmental Protection Agency and failing to provide no detailed budget proposals to repair the water system.

Othor Cain, a radio host from Jackson, is among the critics. Cain taught Lumumba in Sunday school at a Methodist church when Lumumba was young. He described the mayor as “a nice guy” and a talented speaker. But he said Lumumba failed to surround himself with strong managers and was reluctant to build working relationships with other elected officials.

“You can’t blame him for the centuries-old water system and the centuries-old infrastructure,” Cain said. “But you can blame him from 2017, when he was elected, for doing nothing.”

Robert Luckett, a civil rights historian, was nominated by Lumumba to serve on Jackson’s school board. Luckett said he respects the mayor and thinks he is doing a good job. Like many friends and acquaintances, Luckett calls Lumumba by his middle name.

“When Antar first ran for mayor and lost and then ran and won, there was an idealism to his campaign that was a hallmark of early career politicians,” said Luckett said. “In his first term as mayor, the shine of that idealism kind of faded a bit.”

Republicans control the Mississippi Legislature and all state offices. Lumumba and most other Jackson officials are Democrats. Mayor and Governor Reeves rarely spoke before Jackson’s latest water crisis, and they’ve only made a few appearances together since the start.

The day after announcing the end of the boil water advisory in Jackson, the governor spoke at a business opening in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

“I have to tell you, it’s a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It’s also, as always, a great day not to be in Jackson,” Reeves said. “I think I should take off my director of emergency management hat and leave it in the car, and take off my director of public works hat and leave it in the car.”

Lumumba is a lawyer and has been a community organizer. He said he is able to work with people who have different points of view.

“If you can only organize like-minded people, you’re not really an organizer,” he said.

Lumumba is the second person in his family to serve as mayor of Jackson. The man he calls his hero, his father Chokwe Lumumba, was elected mayor in 2013 after serving four years on the city council. Chokwe Lumumba persuaded Jackson voters to approve a 1% local sales tax to fund infrastructure improvements. He died in 2014, after less than nine months in office.

The elder Lumumba, originally from Michigan, had lived in Mississippi in the 1970s and was active in a black nationalist organization, the Republic of New Afrika. After practicing law in the North for several years, he and his wife, Nubia, moved their family back to Mississippi.

Young Lumumba said he spent part of his childhood working at the Malcolm X Grassroots Center for Self-Determination and Self-Defense in Jackson. He said the center had summer programs for young people, offering them lessons in politics and recreational activities like swimming.

“I am grateful to my parents for giving me this value system in my work today,” Lumumba said.

After the death of his father, young Lumumba ran unsuccessfully in a special election for mayor in 2014.

He won his first term as mayor in 2017 and easily won a second term in 2021. Lumumba said as he grew up and got a law degree, he did not aspire to be mayor but prayed for God to bless him. used for heavy work.

“I believe the Lord keeps our prayers stored in vials and they are like a fragrant aroma to him,” said Lumumba, who attends a non-denominational Christian church. “So the prayer I said around the age of 8, he remembered that and I think that’s why I’m in position here.”

Corey Lewis of Gulfport, Mississippi, said he and Lumumba were best friends. They met in 2001 when Lewis was a student at Tougaloo College and Lumumba graduated from Jackson’s Callaway High School.

“He cares about the town of Jackson – like, it’s a passion,” Lewis said. “We could be having fun or going on a trip and he’d be like, ‘Man, I just don’t know what I’m going to do about this situation. “”

Cain, however, said he thought running a city was a bigger job than current Mayor Lumumba had anticipated.

“I just believe there’s a difference between a politician or an elected official and an advocate or an activist,” the radio host said. “I don’t think this guy was able to make the transition.”

In a 2017 speech at Millsaps College in Jackson, Lumumba said that as the child of two activists, he tended to talk about big issues like social justice and self-determination.

“But as I learned quickly during the election campaign,” he said, “when you knock on the door of a gentleman or a lady and you talk about these big ideas, you are confronted to a sibling who says, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s good, young brother, but how are you going to fix that pothole in the middle of my street?

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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