When Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba ran for mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, knocking on neighbor’s doors and talking in the fiery language of liberation to would-be voters, one practically minded resident asked quite simply — who was going to fix the potholes?

His answer?

“Ultimately, what we learned is the problem wasn’t the pothole to begin with,” Lumumba told a multiracial crowd at the gymnasim at LeMoyne-Owen College Saturday during the United Campus Workers’ annual Juneteenth celebration. The event celebrates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, with news that enslaved blacks were free—a full two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclaimation.

“Your problem is you don’t control the decision-making that leads to the pothole in the first place,” Lumumba said as workers, labor organizers and community members intently listened as they ate from plates of piled with pulled pork and chicken sandwiches, green beans, slaw and other fixings. “The problem is you don’t control the curriculum that educates your children.

“Your problem isn’t simply that you don’t get paid enough,” he continued. “It’s that you don’t control the businesses that set the wages.”

Lumumba stressed the importance of community, near and far: “In the process of fixing that pothole, people in Jackson, Mississippi, understand there’s a community that looks just like theirs in Memphis. And the workers in Mississippi understand that there’s oppression happening for workers in Memphis, Tennessee, and across this country everywhere we go.”

Dozens of residents and several community groups gathered at the LeMoyne-Owen College gymnasium for the United Campus Workers Juneteenth celebration.
Tony Patton, an electrical maintenance worker at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and longtime United Campus Workers member, shakes hands with Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, keynote speaker at the union’s annual Juneteenth celebration.
Lumumba at the United Campus Workers Juneteenth Celebration.
Lumumba speaks with one of the guests.
The crowd cheered as the United Campus Workers Juneteenth event came to a close.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project and Community Change.