In present day Benin in West Africa, there lies the once thriving Kingdom of Dahomey. From 1600 to 1904, its all-women military unit – the Dahomey women warriors, also known as the Agojie or the Dahomey Amazons – were known as the protectors of the kingdom.
The Agojie have a revered, feared, and ignominious history – especially because they were heavily involved in selling their fellow Africans into the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Yet, their main purpose was to ensure the security of their kingdom and their king. They would ready themselves for battle by singing songs passed down from generation to generation, much like the nonviolent battle tactic and tradition of freedom songs here in the United States amongst descendents of the African Diaspora.
In modern times, their likeness can be seen in the Dora Milaje – the all-Black, all-female special forces unit in the fictional kingdom of Wakanda in Marvel’s blockbuster hit Black Panther. And in 2022, The Woman King movie was released as a fictionalized history of the Agojie. In a recent interview to promote the movie, Viola Davis, who plays the main character General Nanisca, shared how hard she had to train her body and mind for the role. Davis weight trained for an hour and a half each day; she took combat lessons for three hours each day; and she ran at 10 mph on the treadmill. As an Academy Award-winning actress, her mindset to get into her warrior character mode was “either you fight or you die.”
That same warrior mindset has been echoed in Mississippi since before, but especially during and since, the Civil Rights Movement. Countless men and women incurred the wrath of white oppressors because they fought for the freedom to live, the freedom to vote, and the freedom to use the same water fountains, restaurants, bathrooms, and schools as their white counterparts, among other rights they deserved to have.
Several Blacks and whites from across the nation migrated to Mississippi to join the fight, irregardless of the brutal consequences, especially during Freedom Summer of 1964. Many of the members of the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), including John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, C.T. Vivian, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Bob Moses, Julian Bond, David Dennis, and others, traversed to Mississippi to join the ranks of countless men and women fighting for freedom.
In the coming years, Mississippi would become a hub for various grassroots social justice organizations. Chokwe Lumumba migrated to Jackson in 1971 to create a hub for the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) – an organization that called for the actualization of a separate land for people of African descent and reparations for the hundreds of years of chattel slavery that were endured by these same people – where he was the second vice president. He would later leave the state but permanently moved back in 1988.
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was founded in 1990, and Lumumba’s work as an integral part of its creation took shape in Jackson, Mississippi. He purchased a house on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Randall Street in West Jackson and painted the brick building black with red and green trim, calling it the Malcolm X Grassroots Center. The People’s Assembly was its main initiative. Religious leaders, educators, healthcare professionals, and other individuals who represented various facets of issues that were pertinent to the Black community would meet and educate the community about African liberation, self-empowerment, and self-governance; they would bring concerns to the table, gather information, organize, and tackle one issue at a time, and make policies that were enforced to alleviate the stress and strain of injustice and inequity from the community.
Though the organization’s warrior mindset was a little different than the perceived Agojie’s mantra, “Free the land! Free the people!” has a silent but implied “or die trying” and “by any means necessary” at the end. Any Jacksonian can hear the current mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba (also the son of Chokwe Lumumba), chanting the motto at any given public engagement. He is continuing the work his father left when the older Lumumba suddenly died of a heart attack during the second year of his own mayoral administration in 2014.
Nonetheless, the protector of the kingdom that encompasses the social justice work that began in a little black, red, and green building in the heart of the city is the older Lumumba’s daughter Rukia Lumumba. She has continued the work of the People’s Assembly and expanded it – through organizing and transformative justice strategizing – to impressive heights by way of her organization the People’s Advocacy Institute.
Lumumba recalls that the organization “was something that my father and I had talked about back in 2001 when I was beginning to enter my first year of law school. The goal was really to create a place that could train community members to be their own legal representatives, their own legal defenders, but also could build the capacity of community members to fully understand the U.S. legal system and to understand the importance of participating on juries and engaging in how to navigate the legal system.”
Growing up seeing too many people go to prison at such a young age, Lumumba’s goal was to ultimately expand that idea to create more inclusive and visionary ways to achieve justice for people incarcerated or formerly incarcerated instead of just engaging in the current criminal legal system within the United States. She questioned what it meant to actually create alternatives and the work that PAI does is beginning to answer that question.
“The People’s Advocacy Institute is really a space where we come together to envision alternatives. We not only envision it, but we create it. And we really work to build communities’ capacity and to be the leaders that Ella Baker tells us that we already are. We are the leaders that we want to see and be, and that’s really what we work on. It’s about skill building. It’s about knowledge building. It’s about dreaming and implementing those dreams,” Lumumba said.
Lumumba also grew up watching her father defend people over and over again. “One of the most impactful times I remember seeing him was when we went to interview a client who was a man in his mid-thirties, maybe early forties at the time – a father, a husband – and he was being held in Parchman,” she remembers. “It was maybe my first year of college [at Tougaloo College] and I was going to help interview to take notes with my father. He was being held in the prison because there was no jail in the area. Just seeing this man begin to shed tears about his circumstances and conditions and fighting a legal battle through his innocence. I’ve seen so many folks who I knew may not be completely innocent of the crimes that they had been convicted of or charged with but definitely didn’t deserve the penalty that was being perpetuated on them. And I know that the penalty would not have been as harsh or as harmful to them and their families had they been white or had they been wealthy and had the resources to fight their cases in a different way.”
Ending mass incarceration is just one of the three bodies of work that PAI is involved in. The first is electoral justice which consists of the evolution of the People’s Assembly. The current iteration was created through the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in 2006. The Jackson People’s Assembly “focuses on co-governance tools for residents to cultivate more control and authority over big and small decisions so that they are not relying solely on representatives in office to realize those,” said Lumumba. Many of the programs PAI has developed since its inception have come out of this process.
In 2019, PAI hosted the first participatory budgeting process in the state of Mississippi. Held in conjunction with the City of Jackson, the resident-led meetings facilitated “real and concrete input” from concerned citizens who wanted to be involved with the planning of the City of Jackson’s 2019-2020 fiscal year. Meetings were held bi-weekly up through the end of City of Jackson’s budget session that year. That budget – the people’s budget – was approved by the mayor and ultimately approved by the city council in a four to three vote.
The assembly process also led to a community designed violence intervention initiative. One hundred and twenty-five community members were engaged for a year and their input gave birth to one of PAI’s preventative programs – Strong Arms of Jackson which is now Strong Arms of Mississippi. “This is a credible messenger program which works as an alternative to detention for young people that are at risk of going to prison or detention,” said Lumumba. That program beget Operation Good and Safe Streets Cure Violence program which partners with the Oak Forest Community of South Jackson.
Both of these programs seek to identify and mediate conflicts to interrupt them from leading to violence while also training community members and professionals on how to do the same. This work led to more than three-fourths of a year without gun violence in this community within a city that has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the nation. Both of these programs are also a part of PAI’s body of work that invests in the community.
PAI is involved in “door-to-door canvassing on a daily basis to get to know community members, distributing food, building and serving community, and doing it in a way that increases the presence of strong caring adults caring for community and increasing the ability for community to care for itself,” Lumumba relayed.
Circling back to PAI’s work in ending mass incarceration, the organization “works with a coalition of numerous organizations that are doing that work. We believe that no one organization can do this work alone as no one individual can,” noted Lumumba. This has led to the incubation of several coalitions like the Mississippi Bail Fund Collective “which works across the state of Mississippi to bail out people who are lingering in jails because they cannot afford bail.”
This initiative helps alleviate the strain of wealth-based detention. “The longer a person sits in jail, the harder it is for them to defend their case. But also the more likely it is that they will take a plea whether they’re innocent or guilty. And we know that Black people, indigenous people, and people of color disproportionately are innocent and in prison and take pleas at a much higher rate than any white person,” stated Lumumba.
The initiative is not a bail bonding company and does not take money from people or require security. The fund pays cash bail and then works with individuals and their families to ensure that they return to court throughout the pendency of their case. This includes ensuring that they have housing, medical and counseling services for mental health illnesses or substance abuse, employment, and identifying proper legal support.
In 2019 through the winter of 2020, there were uprisings in Mississippi prisons. This led to a PAI-incubated collaboration called the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition steered by the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign. “People incarcerated finally had had enough and began to reach out to many of us advocates, sending pictures, posting on social media, and exposing what was happening on the inside. This included deaths and killings where people were just left dead for days and weeks and nobody did anything about it, contaminated water or no water at all, lockdowns for months – being in a cell for 24 hours a day for months at a time – living with feces because of the sewage problems and things like that,” relayed Lumumba.
Made up of 13 organizations, the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition works to improve conditions inside of Mississippi prisons as an intervention but ultimately they want to see Parchman Penitentiary – an 18,000 acre former slave plantation – shut down.
A couple of defining moments for Lumumba occurred through PAI’s small legal support clinic, which is called the Participatory Defense Clinic, and represents people who are serving long sentences in prison. “One of our first clients, Denise Coleman served 38 years in prison which was seven years over her sentence because Mississippi claimed that they had lost her paperwork during [Hurricane] Katrina. When we got on the case, they found her paperwork in less than two hours. We were able to get her out within two months.”
“We just had another victory this year with Leonard Hart Henderson, another Jacksonian, who was sentenced to 228 years in Angola Prison for a crime that he adamantly and consistently has indicated he did not do, which is four robberies that resulted in nobody’s death and resulted in no physical harm to anyone with maybe $200 [taken]. He did 21 years on that sentence. And we were able to help him obtain his release and freedom in February of this year,” Lumumba continues.
The PAI-incubated COVID Community Response Coalition, which is now known as the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, has been at the forefront of organizing various groups and individuals who donated water and distributed water throughout the community during Jackson’s water crisis. Just prior to the COVID shutdown in Mississippi in March 2020, PAI “organized with University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) medical school students to create a comprehensive response that would provide door-to-door service to those no longer able to leave their homes, including children, people without transportation, seniors, and folks living with vulnerabilities,” stated Lumumba.
“This created the infrastructure needed in 2021, when we had the winter storm, to bring those same partners together and to expand it statewide to partners who were able to immediately get on the ground two days after the winter storm and provide water, hot meals, and heaters to people who were without electricity, without water, without food.” The MRRC worked diligently throughout the entire six week process that citizens in Jackson and other rural communities throughout the state were without water or had low water pressure. And they have repeated the same tactics during the last two months during the water crisis.
Lumumba applauds the collaborative spirit of the Jackson community. “I could truly tell you that I have had more instances of collaboration and collective work and responsibility here in Jackson than anywhere else. The community is willing. We are the willing and the able.”
The many battles that Lumumba and PAI have waged on behalf of individuals and marginalized communities is vast, but each initiative and collaboration deploys freedom warriors willing and able to pick up the mantle and fight for a more just community, a more just city, state, and nation. Whether the fight is a three-year push for the Jackson city council to dedicate dollars from the city budget to divert to community-based organizations that are doing violence intervention work – consisting of healthcare, childcare, mental health, addiction support services, education, and after school programming – to increase the amount of resources in order to prevent violence or dealing with state leadership with its constant pushback, withholding of resources, and belittlement of Mississippi’s capital city even in a crisis, PAI meets the challenge.
Of the former, Lumumba said, “We can’t think that police alone are gonna solve the problems that exist in our community when we know that a tremendous amount of our problems come from things that police can’t control like lack of resources, the need for more economic stability, the creation of jobs. You create jobs by creating programs that actually serve the community,” said Lumumba.
Of the latter, Lumumba said, “We’re constantly under attack and being exploited by the state and by the communities around us. We’re constantly being vilified by these entities, too. I want to lift up that our municipal government has been doing what they can and that includes the city council. I think we can be smarter and do more.”
Many may even get confused or flustered by the work that Rukia Lumumba is doing versus the work that Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba is a part of. “Sometimes the messenger can be a block [for people]. Some people look at me and say, ‘Oh, well, she’s just saying that’ or ‘She’s just pushing the mayor’s agenda.’ I’m the mayor’s sister. But anybody who knows me knows that I’m Rukia Lumumba first. And I’ve been doing this work for a very long time, since before my brother could probably even remember a desire to insert [himself] into the political realm. My dedication to the wellbeing of people has been the center of my work and my life since I was young.
“I think the day and time for that is over. We’re living in very critical times right now where the consequences of our inaction or our inability to collaborate are too great. We have a common goal. And as long as you care about the people of Jackson, as long as you care about this place and want to see it [get] better, and you care about the wellbeing of all people and that you want to make moves that are not harmful or you are not harming someone, then I’m gonna work with you.”
Despite obstacles, there are several wins here. The office of the mayor agreed to create an office of violence prevention through a grant that they received from the National League of Cities but there is a push for the city council to have more participation in serving the community in this way. The money for this initiative will be a resource for community members not PAI as an organization. Hinds County has invested in a reentry program and ensured that they reached out to entities who were well-versed in criminal justice reform while launching the program. The Confederate flag was taken down as the state flag in 2020. Bipartisan legislation, though eventually vetoed by Governor Tate Reeves, showed that it’s possible to have collaboration from each side of the aisle to benefit marginalized people and create sustainable criminal justice reform.
Of the myriad of issues that Lumumba is tackling, one may wonder where she gets the energy to succeed in the various facets of transformative social justice. She says that her fuel doesn’t come from outside entities. “I get my affirmation from the people and I know that in order to do this work, I have to maintain some form of optimism. That’s how I’m able to move every day. My optimism comes from the people; it comes from when we’ve been working with community members who were living in poverty back in 2019 and now are looking to buy a home. Despite all of the ways that the state government has decreased their access to food, rent, and economic support in so many ways, we’ve been able to work together and collectively say I’m not going to rely on the state. This is what I’m going to do to figure it out.
“When I see community members who never have voted before, but began to canvas with us, going door-to-door, telling people about the elections that are coming up, engaging in the presidential campaign election in 2020, and passing out information now [say], ‘I’m ready to run. I think I can do that,’ that for me is success. The building of an individual’s capacity, one person by one person by one person over and over again. That is really the motivation that I need. That makes me feel like we’re winning. We might see some legislation or some actions by the state government try to hold us back. But it’s every time that we push back, that’s my win,” said Lumumba.
At the end of the day and in reiteration, Rukia Lumumba is the protector of the kingdom that her father and mother, Nubia Lumumba, built. The lessons her father taught her – humility, to listen deeply, to learn, and then take what is needed from that conversation – and the lessons her mother taught her – to embody the understanding that community is family and family is community – flow through the bones of her work through the People’s Advocacy Institute.
And so it’s a joy for her to do the work but also to come off of a business trip and head to the movies with her suitcase in hand just to see The Woman King. She’s a social justice warrior. A woman king of sorts, too.