Lumumba (Rogelio V. Solis / AP)
Jackson, Miss. — Detroit native Chuckwe Lumumba, a prominent civil rights attorney and former human rights activist, died Tuesday, said authorities in Jackson, Miss., where he served as mayor.
Jackson city officials said Lumumba died at St. Dominic Hospital. A cause of death was not immediately clear, though City Council president Charles Tillman, who was sworn in as acting mayor, said he had met Monday with Lumumba, who had a cold.
“He kind of joked around about it,” Tillman said.
Lumumba served one term on the City Council and was sworn in as mayor last July. He was one of two candidates who defeated then-Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. in the Democratic primary in early June. Lumumba then defeated businessman Jonathan Lee in the general election.
In Detroit, local attorneys lauded him for his commitment to the underrepresented.
“He was a giant in our community,” said Gerald Evelyn, a defense attorney. “... His life exemplified total unselfishness and he was resolute to the pursuit of justice for those who needed it most — the depressed and dispossessed.”
Lumumba, a Democrat, who served as mayor of Jackson, Miss., died Tuesday at a Jackson hospital. Friends said Lumumba was battling an undisclosed illness.
In 2013, he was one of several southern leaders who supported Benny Napoleon's mayoral campaign and his pledge to fight emergency management in the city.
Lumumba was born in Detroit as Edwin Taliaferro, and grew up on the city’s west side near Northwestern High School. He changed his name in 1969, when he was in his early 20s. He said he took his new first name from an African tribe that resisted slavery centuries ago and his last name from African independence leader Patrice Lumumba.
He moved to Jackson in 1971 as a human rights activist. He went to law school at Wayne State University in the mid-1970s and returned to Jackson in 1988.
Lumumba was involved in Detroit with the Republic of New Afrika in the 1970s and ’80s, a group he said that had advocated “an independent predominantly black government” in the southeastern United States.
“He set the mark to be the measure of an attorney and a man unabashedly unafraid to fight for liberation in courtroom and in the community,” said Ron Scott, a spokesman for Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, who met Lumumba when he was a member of the Republic of New Afrika.
Lumumba was vice president of the group for a time. The group also advocated reparations for slavery, and was watched by an FBI counterintelligence operation.
“The provisional government of Republic of New Afrika was always a group that believed in human rights for human beings,” Lumumba told the Associated Press in 2013. “I think it has been miscast in many ways. It has never been any kind of racist group or ‘hate white’ group in any way. … It was a group which was fighting for human rights for black people in this country and at the same time supporting the human rights around the globe.”
As an attorney, Lumumba represented Tupac Shakur in cases including one in which the rapper was cleared of aggravated assault in the shootings of two off-duty police officers who were visiting Atlanta from another city when they were wounded. Shakur died in 1996.
In 2011, Lumumba persuaded then-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to release sisters Jamie Scott and Gladys Scott from a state prison after they served 16 years for an armed robbery they said they didn’t commit. Barbour suspended their life sentences but didn’t pardon them.
As Jackson mayor, Lumumba persuaded voters to pass a referendum in January to add a 1-cent local sales tax to help pay for improvements to crumbling roads and an aging water and sewer system.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose district includes most of Jackson, said he has known Lumumba since 1974.
“One of the reasons I was so public about my support for the mayor was that I believed once people got to know the real Chokwe Lumumba they would find him to be an extremely bright, caring and humble individual,” Thompson said Tuesday. “His election as mayor and very short term in office demonstrated exactly that.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Tony Briscoe contributed.