Socialist Planning Efforts in Jackson, Mississippi: An Annotated Bibliography

Jessica Doyle
Oct 25 · 23 min read
Downtown Jackson, Mississippi, 2015. Photo taken by Mississippi Mike.

This past summer I taught an Introduction to Urban and Regional Planning course to undergraduate students at Georgia Tech. I was lucky enough to be given a wide berth to design the syllabus as I liked; and so within a couple hours of accepting the job I realized, with no small amount of glee, that I was free to compel my students to learn about socialist planning efforts in Jackson, Mississippi.

Their assignment was, given three documents (the “Prompts” listed below), to come up with at least two more links each to more information: about Jackson, about the Jackson-Kush Plan and its admirers, about socialist urban planning in general, or all three. And then I told them why I was spending time on this particular assignment. Urban planning as a discipline can broadly be said to have originated in seventeenth-century London and developed with the rise of major European, American, and British-colonized cities in the nineteenth century; in other words, it grew up with the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. Moreover, many American planning schools, Tech included, have large master’s programs, which means they’re focusing on teaching future planners, most of whom will graduate to work in American cities. However left-wing the collective faculty sympathies might be, it’s hard to justify spending a lot of class time on socialist or “radical” planning when there’s so much else to squeeze into a two-year curriculum.

And besides, I said to my class, my personal sympathies run fairly libertarian and pro-capitalist; efforts like those in Jackson are exactly the kind I myself should be paying attention to, if I’m not going to be forever prisoner of my own biases. A Jackson-based case study would be a perfect opportunity to see how much good an explicitly anti-capitalist movement could do in a historically underdeveloped city.

You may have speculated by now that I got back twenty papers with the first three links from the search “jackson kush plan” and a few desultory notes. Wrong! My students came through beautifully. By the time we finished the unit I realized we’d not only created some interesting discussions but a sizeable potential bibliography, collectively made.

What follows is that bibliography, formatted and annotated. (If you prefer to skip straight to the bibliographic data, it’s available to copy-paste in APA format on my personal website, or on GitHub in BibTeX format.)

To give proper credit: these resources were compiled by Ferdinand Aka, Emily Anderson, Robert Brown, Jacob Calvert, Leayes Eid, Schayne Fox, Jingyi (Joy) Gu, Kyle Hadaway, James (Connor) Hansen, Bill Huang, Safwan Jaleel, Maurice (Mo) Mandujano, Jose Muñoz Elizondo, Christopher (Chris) Petrinec, Kateryna (Kate) Polyakova, Moises Rayo, Ajay Saini, Anriudh (AT) Thatavarty, Phuong Tran, Elaine Wheetman, and Taotao Yang. I added some pieces that were published after the conclusion of the class in July, and wrote the summaries; any errors are mine alone.

The Prompts

Gilbert’s article was the first I’d heard of Cooperation Jackson, the Jackson-Kush Plan, or the late mayor Chokwe Lumumba and his son, current mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. She describes the elder Lumumba’s early interests in co-operative economic development and collective land ownership and how those interests were tied to the writing of the Jackson-Kush Plan and the eventual establishment of Cooperation Jackson. Gilbert also makes it clear that Jackson’s problems are urban-planning problems (namely an inadequate tax base, abandoned properties, and deteriorating transportation infrastructure) compounded by white flight and by long-standing underinvestment in its black communities.

The Jackson-Kush Plan is described in this document as “an initiative to build a base of autonomous power in Mississippi concentrated in Jackson and the eastern Black Belt portions of the state that can serve as a catalyst for the attainment of Black self-determination and the democratic transformation of the economy.” (For more on the Black Belt part of the southern United States and its importance in black history, see this 2004 overview.) The Jackson-Kush Plan has three main prongs: the creation of “People’s Assemblies,” the establishment of a new, independent political party, and — the most planning-relevant part — the creation of a “Solidarity Economy” that eschews profit and instead “promote[s] social solidarity, mutual aid, reciprocity, and generosity.” To that end, they call for creating regional agricultural co-operatives, “decommodifying land,” building community credit unions, establishing co-operatives for housing and work, and expanding the public sector. The eventual, long-term goal is the abolition of capitalism “and the poverty and oppressive social relations that it fosters”; if implemented, the Jackson-Kush Plan is meant to help people realize the possibility of such a goal.

Gilbert’s article being two years old at this point, I checked to see if there were major changes since she did her research. And it turned out there was one: Cooperation Jackson, an umbrella organization to supervise some of the initiatives outlined in the Jackson-Kush Plan, is no longer affiliated with Mayor Lumumba or with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement or the New African People’s Organization. According to this blog post, the disagreement largely came down to differences in approaching Jackson’s problems: Cooperation Jackson’s representatives continued to emphasize the “solidarity economy” approach, while the mayor’s office pursued more traditional capitalist economic-development strategies, such as trying to get existing businesses to move to Jackson. As a result of the split, Cooperation Jackson has shifted its focus away from Jackson as a whole and is concentrating more on its core operations, including a land trust and co-operatives focused on farming, fabrication, and lawn care.

Background: Jackson

Bakari, a representative of the Malcom X Grassroots Movement (hereafter MXGM), describes in an interview how the group is native to Jackson, having been founded there in 1990 (in part by the elder Mayor Lumumba). Land use has been one of the group’s primary concerns from its founding. “Then and now, if you control the county clerk and the sheriff’s department of any county in Mississippi, you control the county,” Bakari explains. “The county clerk’s office is where all of the land is recorded.”

Some basic data for you: the population of the city of Jackson is 84% black, while the biggest industries are health care, accomodation and food services, retail trade, and education (thanks to Jackson State). As elsewhere in the southern United States, the metropolitan area is severely economically stratified: median annual household income in Madison County, north of Jackson, is more than $65,000, while in the city proper it’s $35,000 and 29% of the population is below the poverty line.

Both of these articles discuss the elder Mayor Lumumba, the first right before he received 85% of the vote in Jackson’s Democratic mayoral primary in June 2013, the second written after his death in February 2014. The second piece goes into more detail about the elder Mayor Lumumba’s policy initiatives — namely, require that a new water and sewer infrastructure project employ minority contractors and city residents — and places his ideas in the context of a history of black-led co-operative initiatives in the rural South.

These four pieces focus on Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s successful 2017 mayoral campaign and his tenure as mayor. Two months after his inauguration, Mayor Lumumba described himself to the Guardian as a “revolutionary” but added, “Jackson is going to be a business friendly city.” (As the Flanders piece above recounts, the elder Mayor Lumumba invested early and well in a relationship with the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership.) The joint Mississippi Today interview, conducted in 2018, is most interesting for Mayor Lumumba’s description of how he approached negotiations with Phil Bryant, Mississippi’s Republican governor, to eventually avert a potential state takeover of Jackson public schools.

One background issue that came up early in my students’ research was crime as a significant issue in Jackson, and distrust between the police force and the (again, largely black) population. (Jackson police, Republican politicians from Jackson’s suburbs, and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation have all argued against releasing the names of officers involved in police shootings, on the grounds that such a move would endanger officers’ safety.) Read all four pieces and you can sense Mayor Lumumba trying to walk a fine line, trying to respond to community demands (by implementing body cameras) while refraining from striking the more hostile tone to police he took immediately upon accession to office.

A more recent development is a battle between the city and Siemens, which won a contract in 2012 (before the elder Mayor Lumumba was elected) to administer Jackson’s water billing system. In June of this year the city sued Siemens, arguing the company and its subcontractors committed fraud, installing non-functioning new meters and failing to deliver any actual savings. In turn, some Jackson residents have sued the city, arguing that they shouldn’t be held responsible for large water bills while the city is suing Siemens for faulty payment systems.

Background: What Does Socialist Planning Look Like?

  • Sewell, Rob, and Woods, Alan. “What Is Marxism?” In Defence of Marxism website, March 15, 2000.

“It is economics, in the last analysis, that determines the conditions of life, the habits and consciousness of human beings.” This is a slightly edited version of a 1983 essay by Sewell and Woods (the latter of whom co-founded the International Marxist Tendency, and counted the late Hugo Chávez among his fans). It’s thorough; if you’re coming absolutely cold to Marxist theory, I’d go with Robert Heilbroner’s (sympathetic) chapter on Marx in The Worldly Philosophers first.

If I had to do the case study over again, I’d have prepared more information on the history of urban planning in explicitly socialist political structures. Not surprisingly, the English-language scholarship on Soviet urban planning was limited by Cold-War-related bad feelings (just as various countries’ rising tensions with China is likely to influence how planners talk about Chinese cities in the near future). But my students did find three case studies, one contemporaneous, the other two retrospective. (The Beard piece is set in Indonesia.) The article on Russian urban planning was less strictly bound to Marxist or Soviet ideology than might be guessed from afar — including in the 1930s, before the post-Stalinist “thaw.”

A more recent offshoot of Marxist economic thought is the idea of the “solidarity economy.” Ideas, rather; the Miller piece gives several different examples of “solidarity” work but refuses to be tied down as to what a solidarity economy would actually look like beyond being “a dynamic process of economic organizing.” Utting identifies two specific characteristics of social or solidarity organizations: they have specific environmental and social objectives, and they “involve varying forms of co-operative, associative and solidarity relations.” The SolidarityNYC information is more specific, with a diagram giving examples of representative organizations (community land trusts, credit unions, barter clubs) and a map of such organizations currently in New York City.

This interview with Z, one of the co-founders of Black Socialists of America, highlights BSA’s formal partnership with Cooperation Jackson, leading to the latter being prominently featured on BSA’s “Dual Power” map, which highlights worker co-operatives throughout the country.

Interviews of Cooperation Jackson Representatives

Kali Akuno, who is credited with authoring the Jackson-Kush Plan, has emerged as Cooperation Jackson’s most active spokesperson. The New Politics interview is relatively wide-ranging, as the New Politics interviewers seek to place Cooperation Jackson in the context of national movements such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter. Note that this is early enough that Akuno speaks as a representative of both Cooperation Jackson and MXGM. The Democracy at Work podcast interview takes place after Akuno had co-authored the book Jackson Rising with Ajamu Nangwaya, so putting the two interviews together allows an opportunity for measuring how Akuno’s thinking has changed over time.

Hall grounds her interest in Cooperation Jackson and cooperative economies more generally in her personal context: growing up in a low-income neighborhood in New York City, where neighbors frequently supported each other through bartering and mutual non-monetary exchanges. She also talks about her interest in participatory budgeting and what effects such an initiative might have on policy (especially infrastructure decision-making) in Jackson.

This interview with Akuno (undated, but it seems to have taken place during the interim between the elder Mayor Lumumba’s death and his son’s election) is informative in that it focuses more explicitly on Cooperation Jackson’s support base within Jackson and its local goals. “One of our primary objectives,” Akuno tells Johnson, “is to have a minimum of 10 percent of the jobs in Jackson be drawn directly from the federation of worker cooperatives that we are producing.”

king’s pride in Cooperation Jackson’s work, specifically food growing, is evident in this interview, which includes some more specific discussions — how does the Freedom Farms cooperative work? What obstacles lie in the way of Jackson becoming a “zero-waste” city by 2025? king also identifies an immediate reason to focus on land trusts: a fear that developing West Jackson into a medical corridor, as has been proposed, would displace residents.

Finally, Akuno has recently given two interviews (the first was to Jacobin) critiquing the Green New Deal. The Lazare interview is more strictly focused on the Green New Deal, and features Akuno as a representative of the Climate Justice Alliance. The Jacobin piece is more wide-ranging, and allows Akuno to speak more to his hope that international publicity will give Cooperation Jackson and its allies more power that can be translated into local action. He also discusses the question of how to achieve food sovereignty without employing agricultural strategies that historically have needed a corporate scale to work.

Works by Cooperation Jackson Representatives

This early piece by Akuno, written in support of the elder Chokwe Lumumba’s mayoral candidacy, outlines some possible initiatives that may get revived if Cooperation Jackson grows, such as the Amandla Education Project (for training youth and community organizers) and Operation Black Belt (a pro-labor campaign focused on organizing workers in the transport industry and getting rid of right-to-work laws in the Deep South).

Titles aside, these two pieces by Akuno aren’t directly related to each other, though they do seem to come from two different perspectives on what Cooperation Jackson’s relationship to traditional elected power should be. The most interesting section of the first, in which Akuno is reflecting in the wake of the elder Mayor Lumumba’s untimely death, is his overview of the Environmental Protection Agency’s issuance of a consent decree over Jackson’s antiquated water and sewer system (which led in part to the Siemens contract now proving so controversial) and how the new Lumumba administration was overwhelmed by the urgency of the problem. By the time Akuno wrote “Casting Light,” though, he was disillusioned with the entire electoral process, even though winning election was a concern of the Jackson MXGM/NAPO organizers even before Akuno moved to the city.

In this excerpt from Jackson Rising, Akuno writes of the need to organize a Black working-class consciousness, which will require “co-construct[ing] and advanc[ing] new social norms and values rooted in radical ecological and humanitarian principles. In effect, what we are aiming to do is develop a new transformative culture.” He also notes: “We are clear that economic democracy and the transition to eco-socialism have to come from below, not from above. That workers and communities have to drive the social transformation process through their self-organization and self-management, not be subject to it.” This excerpt is thus more theoretical than practical, though Akuno does mention the plan to use 3D printing to make Jackson a production hub for a locally-centered economy.

This page gives the current list of Cooperation Jackson’s cooperatives: the Fannie Lou Hamer Community Land Trust, the Freedom Farms, and Green Team Landscaping. It also includes details on planned cooperatives in waste management, construction, and housing, eventually creating a sustainable “eco-village.”

This essay (posted by Saki Hall, but attributed at the Huffington Post to Akuno) explicitly frames Cooperation Jackson’s economic-development plans in the context of Black nationalism: “It is up to us to make sure that we exert Black Control Over Black Lives and not be disposed of by a heartless, exploitative system.”

Praise of Socialist Efforts in Jackson

Ajl writes a laudatory review of Jackson Rising — “ For who else dreams so big, with such serious, committed, grassroots urgency?” — emphasizing the environmental and agrarian aspects of the Jackson-Kush Plan. Interestingly, Ajl places emphasis on Jackson’s historical lack of industrialization, suggesting that locating an eco-socialist effort in Jackson allows socialist theorists to question what role industrialization should play going forward. Russell’s piece, written from a British perspective, is more impressed by the Jackson-Kush Plan’s disavowal of the standard goals of American electoral politics.

This is a particularly useful video in that it shows footage of Cooperation Jackson in action, and interviews Cooperation Jackson members in addition to Akuno. For example, Aina Sunny Gonzalez, in charge of the café (which is no longer under the Cooperation Jackson umbrella), gets a chance to explain how the café and garden address the needs of residents of an identifiable food desert nearby, where the nearest WalMart is 15 minutes away and many residents don’t have a car to make the trip.

This piece, covering a visit by Kali Akuno to the United Kingdom to lecture on establishing cooperatives, doesn’t mention Cooperation Jackson’s split with Mayor Lumumba and MXGM. It does give some hard figures on Cooperation Jackson’s achievements as of May 2019: “more than 220 dues-paying members,” and ownership of 50 different land parcels, including 70 percent of Ewing Street in west Jackson.

Torsheta Jackson is a freelance writer, not a representative of Cooperation Jackson; unfortunately we weren’t able to find the original publisher of her article, a sympathetic description of a project to add murals to historically under-beautified parts of West Jackson. Eric J. Shelton is a photojournalist, and his piece on the same project includes a slide show of the artists and their murals in progress.

Themba brings a slightly different perspective to the unfolding of events since Chokwe Antar Lumumba was elected mayor, as she is working with Rukia Lumumba (Chokwe Antar’s sister) and MXGM’s Bakari on the Democratic Visioning Committee, which is facilitating a form of “people’s assemblies.” Since this is post-split, Themba names Kali Akuno as one of Mayor Lumumba’s most persistent critics, and her piece functions something as a defense of the Lumumba camp’s more pragmatic approach to institutional inclusion. “Reform is only as good as the vision and plan it serves,” she writes. “It is about learning how power works, creating spaces to practice making decisions together, and easing suffering by controlling what we can.”

Criticism of Socialist Efforts in Jackson

As radical as the Jackson-Kush plan is set up to be, explicit criticism of the efforts it has inspired is much harder to find online than praise. Jackson Jambalaya is an unabashedly conservative, locally-focused blog that’s been running since the mid-2000s (I’m tempted to say they don’t make ’em like that anymore; all the conservative bloggers of that era have ambled on to Twitter or Pajamas Media). The critique here is more of Chokwe Lumumba’s pre-mayoral rhetoric, and reads more as a vent then a full counterargument; if you’re already predisposed to think well of the Jackson-Kush plan, this won’t convince you otherwise.

The perspective here is very different from the previous. Umoja, a professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University, writes as a representative of the New Afrikan People’s Organization and a supporter of both Mayor Lumumbas. Although the formal split between NAPO/MXGM and Cooperation Jackson had not yet occurred at the time this was published, disagreements were apparently already public. Umoja defends the Lumumbas’ decision to participate in established two-party politics from criticism from what he calls the “ultra-left” and complains that Cooperation Jackson “has not been able to develop a base of support among indigenous Black people in Jackson, particularly Black workers. This group has so far functioned merely as a non-profit to raise funds which seem to be dedicated primarily to employ a small clique of mostly transplants to Jackson.”

Other Radical (or “Radical”) Planning Initiatives

This is pre-Andrew Yang entry into the discussion of universal basic income, in this case in the creation of a “social wealth fund” for America. The analysis at the national level may be less useful in this case than the consideration of how the wealth fund addresses inequality in Alaska, since Mississippi’s economic and social history looks very different.

Cooperation Jackson’s land-trust efforts are mentioned, but not lingered upon, in this survey of efforts to address land-control efforts on behalf of black and Latino farmers and Native American tribes.

We had discussed the Minneapolis 2040 plan (which should take effect this November) earlier in the semester, and one student suggested referring back to it when discussing Jackson. It’s worth pointing out that, however “radical” Minneapolis’s current plan is — and the radicalism is mostly in the changes to housing policy, and then only set against the century-long American love affair with single-family zoning — the mechanisms of the plan itself, and the process by which the plan was assembled, did not break significantly from previous planning custom.

All three of these pieces are based in Europe (Bertie Russell is based at the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute); all three draw from the “right to the city” idea originally proposed by Henri Lefebvre; and all three center local actions in the context of a potential larger anti-capitalist transformation. (The Warsaw piece is part of a larger series on “rebel cities,” which also includes Jackson.) Russell’s second piece in particular is concerned with the question of how local is too local — whether talking about efforts in a particular city emphasizes the municipal scale to the exclusion of all others. But as Rushton points out, the more successful initiatives are responsive to local concerns: whereas the “right to the city” movement in Brazil has focused on the needs of women and Brazilians of African descent, in Warsaw it has been used to call attention to a housing shortage and air pollution.

The same students who made sure to include an introduction to Marxism in their links (see the Sewell and Woods piece, above) also suggested looking at the biggest top-down economic system in the world right now. This Powerpoint presentation provides an overview of an “anti-poverty program with Chinese characteristics” (yes, that’s a direct quote), which includes creating a database of households in poverty and appointing “first secretaries” that can work with local residents to customize development plans. There is actually more in the presentation about China’s anti-poverty efforts outside its own borders — offering aid workers, direct cash, and training to countries in Latin America and Africa, for example — which makes it of a piece, albeit on a much bigger scale, with the above discussions of thinking of municipal efforts as part of a larger “transformation.”

The Promise of Worker Cooperatives

One collective student takeaway from the project was an interest in workers’ cooperatives as an alternative model of firm-building. Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI) is part of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives; many of the case studies in the Fast Company article were provided by DAWI. DAWI is understandably eager to promote worker cooperatives, saying they lead to greater worker productivity and higher profits, but even it can only count 300 to 400 such companies nationwide. Cooperatives may become more prevalent as baby-boomer owners retire and contemplate selling businesses to their employees, but finding capital to finance the transition can be a significant challenge.

This is another short case study of a workers’ cooperative, Evergreen, which now consists of three separate businesses: a laundry service, a energy-efficient retrofitter, and a hydroponic produce grower. Less laudatory than the above, it notes the challenges of founding a cooperative, and how multiple stakeholders (including the non-profit Cleveland Foundation, Case Western Reserve University, and the Cleveland Clinic) had to contribute to the process throughout to help Evergreen grow over time while employing low-income Cleveland residents.

This is a thorough essay on Mondragon, a Spanish confederation of co-operatives frequently cited by representatives of Cooperation Jackson as a role model. Bamburg, who teaches at the Presidio Graduate School, is frank about what impressed her most about Mondragon’s organization and what aspects troubled her. (Among the latter: growth into international production has meant that Mondragon now has workers outside of Spain, who aren’t included in the co-op.) One of her broader points is that Mondragon has grown to the point of requiring a great deal of technical and specialized knowledge on the part of the workers making decisions — which many potential workers, she notes, may not have and may not even want to acquire.

Thoughts on Jackson’s Implications for Planning Practice

So you can see how the Jackson case study turned out to be even more multifaceted than I’d originally thought. One takeaway I would want to give a planning class, especially one focusing on economic development or land use (as opposed to the survey course I was teaching this summer), would be the very specific local context of Jackson and its history. As eager as would-be cooperative developers and anti-capitalist economy builders are to learn from Jackson, the initiatives there reflect a particular history, including independent political organizations such as MXGM and NAPO, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party before them; black attempts to gain land ownership, and violent white reactions thereto; and the general lack of industrialization of the region.

Which raises the question of what the local context looks like for the efforts playing out in Jackson now. Most of the resources my students found were written from a non-local perspective, while Jackson- or Mississippi-based commentary was harder to find. (I searched for “cooperation jackson” in the online archives of the Clarion-Ledger, for example, and the newest piece I found dated from December 2017.) This may be a reflection of the more general decreased availability of locally-focused journalism. Without that perspective, it’s hard to say — especially from a classroom three states over — how different Jackson publics have responded to the various initiatives inspired by the Jackson-Kush Plan. I also regret that we don’t have more information about the efforts of other possible non-profit actors in Jackson, particularly Jackson State University.

As it stands, there now appears to be not one but two different sets of political and economic reform inspired by the Jackson-Kush Plan: one by the city, which is pushing ahead with participatory budgeting via the Jackson People’s Assembly, and one by Cooperation Jackson. That means that some of the questions the original 2015 Oxford American article raised — how does an American city support explicitly socialist initiatives? — may never be answered to observers’ satisfaction. (Put it another way: Mayor Lumumba might indeed make Jackson into “the most radical city” and still disappoint those inspired by Jackson Rising.) But that doesn’t necessarily make the Jackson case less useful. Planners who may not be nearly as “radical,” by disposition or scope of office or both, might still find their creativity stimulated by looking at the Jackson initiatives.

If I were discussing these works with current or future planners, here are some questions I would pose:

  • What roles can community land trusts play in lower-income communities? What kinds of knowledge and skills are needed to make a community land trust successful? Should government agencies play a role in creating and maintaining community land trusts?
  • How should local economic developers work with non-profits and other community organizations whose goals do not match those of the traditional growth machine, and may in fact be explicitly opposed to economic growth per se? How would these relationships affect the methods and goals of economic development?
  • What implications do increased urban agriculture and the idea of food sovereignty have for transportation, land use, water and stormwater management, and economic development?
  • Finally, if planners like the idea of workers’ cooperatives and want to encourage their development and growth, what tools do they have to do so? What tools do they need? What social and economic barriers might stand in the way of fostering workers’ cooperatives as a successful economic-development strategy? (In which case I’d start looking to the recent work of Stacey Sutton at UIUC, including an article in the Journal of Urban Affairs published earlier this year.)
Jessica Doyle

Written by

Doctoral candidate, School of City and Regional Planning, Georgia Tech; writer; pop music critic; mother and household manager.

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