Martin Luther King had a dream: equal rights for everyone

The city of Jackson, in the deep south of America, is one of the poorest places in one of the poorest cities in the poorest state of the country. Takuma and Nia Umoja started a cooperative here in 2013 to help their black brothers and sisters and give them the right to exist. They reacted critically: 'Only white people can change this, and white people do not come here.'

Michael Persson
Takuma (left) and Nia (right) Umoja. Beeld He-myong Woo
Takuma (left) and Nia (right) Umoja.Beeld He-myong Woo

Brother, do you have work for me?' A black boy in his twenties looks up at Takuma Umoja, a gray rasta on the porch of a cottage in Jackson, Mississippi. The boy pushes a shopping cart with iron and planks over the crumbled asphalt. His clothes are spacious. The street, his hands: the grooves are the same.

You'd said you'd come on Friday, Takuma says.

I knocked, the boy says.


At ten o'clock. Like you said.


Maybe it was a little later. Eleven o'clock?

H-hm. Okay, brother. Next Friday. Ten o'clock. You have a mission.

Enough work

Takuma looks out over the neighborhood, to the wooden houses from the twenties and thirties with their verandas, their pillars, their eaves. Here, in this street, he has already done a lot of refurbishment, with colorful scrap wood and old furniture, with the help of the local residents, with their bare hands. But further on, in the other streets, there are dozens that have collapsed and are overgrown, houses like old men, weathered, broken, with grass from their ears.

There is work enough.

'This is all part of the healing', says Takuma. 'Salvation. Everyone gets a chance to help and help themselves. Also a second chance. People have to raise themselves up, pull up their pants. Working, earning a few bucks, that already makes a lot of difference. There is another life possible, also here.'

Neighborhood house with Joseph (left) and Kenny (right), part of the neighbor labor crew (residents of the neighborhood who have formed a crew to rehabilitate houses).

Neighborhood house with Joseph (left) and Kenny (right), part of the neighbor labor crew (residents of the neighborhood who have formed a crew to rehabilitate houses). © He-myong Woo

This is Jackson, the capital of the state of Mississippi, in the deep south of America. West Jackson, to be precise: one of the poorest places in one of the poorest cities in the poorest state of the country.

The loose ends of the electricity cables are dangling down the poles. Mobile phones have hardly any coverage. Transformers explode and are only hung back weeks later. Broken water pipes make streams that sometimes flow for years. The holes in the streets are big enough for car wheels.

Almost everyone is poor: the average income per household is less than ten thousand dollars. Forty percent of the houses are empty, the majority of the inhabitants are unemployed, the crime is endless. Almost everyone is sick. And almost everyone, except for one preacher's family, is black.

'The people here are the invisible ones', says Nia Umoja, Takuma's wife. The people here have been left to die. And that is why we are here.'

Neighborhood house with Joseph (left) and Kenny (right), part of the neighbor labor crew (residents of the neighborhood who have formed a crew to rehabilitate houses). 

Neighborhood house with Joseph (left) and Kenny (right), part of the neighbor labor crew (residents of the neighborhood who have formed a crew to rehabilitate houses). DEZE FOTO UITSLUITEND VOOR DE VOLKSKRANT EN ONLINE VOLKSKRANT< NIET VOOR ANDERE KRANTEN!!!!Beeld He-myong Woo

Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King - on Wednesday it is exactly half a century since the black civil rights leader, at the age of 39, was shot dead in Memphis, three hours north of Jackson - the inequality between white and black America is even greater than before his fight.

Stuck with crumbling facilities

Yes, black people have been given equal rights. After violent black protests and violent white resistance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 put an end to apartheid in the south. Black people could now live in the same neighborhoods, sit in the same buses, go to the same stores and the same schools.

But in response, White America fled, from the cities, from the buses, from the public schools, and they took their tax money. The black community remained stuck with crumbling facilities. Their socio-economic deficit continued to grow. A modal black American now earns 25 thousand dollars less than a modal white one. An average black man is five times as likely to end up in prison as an average white man.

'The war of the sixties led to new rights and new laws', says Nia, with a long dress and a headscarf, at the table in one of the refurbished houses. 'But the law cannot protect us. The oppression is now much more subtle. In a sense, the struggle of the sixties has disadvantaged us.'

At the time of apartheid, they formed a close community, says Nia. Jackson had a thriving black neighborhood in the 1950s, where black people shopped in black stores. There was a nightlife. 'The poor and rich black families lived in the same neighborhood. We knew each other, we helped each other. But because of the desegregation the black middle class could leave. We have been pulled apart. The underclass stayed behind in neighborhoods that were totally neglected.'

The exodus is still visible. Restaurants and car dealers have been boarded up, and only the faded signboards and empty drive in-circles refer to the shiny consumer attractions of half a century ago. There is no more cinema in this city, and in the evening it is so quiet that you hear the owls.

'We are going to Mississippi, to build a New African city'

This was the promised land for Takuma and Nia. With their (then) six children and a number of friends they moved here from Fort Worth in in 2013, singing in their car ('We are going to Mississippi, to build a New African city'). They would help their black brothers and sisters, make them proud again, give them the right to exist. Self-determination was the key, a word filling a lot of empty talk in the support groups of the sixties, but that here, now, would get concrete meaning.

In Mississippi. It is the state above New Orleans, where for over a century hundreds of thousands of Africans laid the foundation for the wealth of a white elite on the cotton plantations along the great river. It is the state where the Ku Kux Klan lynched Emmett Till, the boy who had said something to a white woman, and where civil rights fighters were murdered by white racists who were mostly acquitted. It was not until 2013 that the abolition of slavery became official.

Nia and the children. Beeld He-myong Woo
Nia and the children.Beeld He-myong Woo

Nia's grandmother came from Mississippi. She lived with her husband and thirteen children in the delta. They were sharecroppers, small farmers who worked as slaves for white landowners and were allowed to keep part of the harvest for themselves. After having to watch as a white mob cut off her brother's penis one night, she fled north with her family to end up in Michigan. 'When I told my grandmother that I was going to Mississippi,' Nia says, 'she burst into tears.'

Nia and Takuma did not come alone. In Jackson, a new mayor was appointed, Chokwe Lumumba, a black activist from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, who wanted to create a black-headed community in Mississippi. Lumumba saw in cooperatives the means to create jobs and distribute the money more fairly. 'We were so enthusiastic,' says Nia. They founded the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson with local residents, about 120 households in eight blocks, and started living in the middle of it.

Out of the individual survival mode

First their air mattresses were stolen. Then their tools. An inspector who came by to see if their house would not collapse said: 'You look like a nice family. Give this piece of land to the first nigger who comes alon and go live in the suburbs.' 'We have stayed,' says Nia. 'We knew where we were going to llive, between the thieves and the whores and the crack addicts. The people here are the people who could not get away. They had adjusted. They were in a survival mode. And yes, people have to hustle. Nobody was talking to each other except through the police.'

The idea of the cooperative was to get people out of that individual survival mode, and let them survive as a neighborhood. Nia and Takuma asked what the local residents needed. Money, a big clean-up, and something for the youth to do, they said. 'But they also said: you will never succeed. You niggers aint gonna do shit. Only white people can change this, and white people do not come here.' So deep is slavery, in black Mississippi. Nothing happens without white bosses, they think.

And then Lumumba died, half a year after he took office. Several idealists left Jackson, with the tail between the legs.

But Takuma and Nia stayed. The cooperative received a ggrant of 100.000 dollars and has now bought 65 plots of land, plus a number of houses on them. Some houses are habitable, others still have to be refurbished. One of the houses is a community space, another will be a restaurant, there are plans for a book store, one is a colorful Airbnb. 'We use these houses to teach local residents skills again,' says Nia. There are fifteen boys who learn carpentry and painting through this project. Most of them could not yet read a tape measure.

Caring and Sharing of Abundance

They took out the elderly Maxine from her leaking and half collapsed building, and moved her to a refurbished house on the other side. They repaired Charles' toilet, who pooped in a bucket for months and buried the contents in the garden. Local residents who want to do some work for four hours can get fifty dollars - a substantial amount, in a place where people count the loose dollar bills to reach the end of the month.

'This was a landfill', says TJ Jackson, who is working behind a small fence on his pick-up truck. 'You could not even come here, there was so much junk in front of the gate. I thought the people who got rid of their garbage here came from other neighborhoods, but they just came from two blocks away. And the smell. Man. Once we found a dead baby in that pile.'

T.J. Jackson Beeld He-myong Woo
T.J. JacksonBeeld He-myong Woo

Now TJ looks out on a green field with a colorful chicken coop. There are large wooden trays in which vegetables are grown. Local residents can get tomatoes, onions, figs, berries, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes for two dollars every two weeks. Caring and Sharing of Abundance, is the name of the program, in which fifty local residents participate. Those who work in the vegetable garden do not have to pay. For centuries the slaves and their descendants worked for white landowners. Here they work for themselves, and for each other.

We thought that Nia and Takuma could not make a difference here. But they just went to work. They take things on, we were not used to that

'We thought that Nia and Takuma could not make a difference here', says TJ. 'But they just went to work. They take things on, we were not used to that. It was contagious. People were going to copy it.' He is welding an old crane in the cab of his old truck. 'That way I can pick up cars that are stranded,' he says. 'Many people lose their car. It gets stuck and towed, and then it costs $ 50 a day in parking costs. Then you've lost your car. "

He himself is going to ask $ 30, he thinks. Or a return service. 'We do a lot of barter trade. That's how you pull through, in the ghetto. We paupers have to stick together. I aint helping you when I take all your money.'

'We want to create an internal system so that people become less dependent on the outside world,' says Nia. 'There was a culture of dependence here, of church, or city, or state. All those people waiting for their social security check! They are good at it, they know the loopholes, they know the social workers, the numbers they have to call. But the welfare state makes you complicit. How can you fight the system that feeds you?'

In the vegetable garden, Xavier is digging a channel to get the water out, after the rain of the past few weeks. He is 17, in the fourth grade of high school. He comes here almost every day. Sometimes he works in the field, sometimes he helps Takuma with a job, or mows the grass somewhere. Later he wants to do something with his hands - as a mechanic, or something with animals. I want to be my own man, he says.

Mechanic, that's the dream job here. Three quarters of an hour to the north, Nissan erected a large assembly plant fifteen years ago where six thousand people work. Xavier's brother Greg also got a job there, two years ago. He only did not have transportation. He did not have a car and buses do not go there. Greg could carpool for a while, but that stopped when the car broke down. Then he attempted a carjacking to get to the car factory. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Two more years, Xavier says, and then Greg will be back, the older brother he looked up to. His father is no longer there, his mother is on crack. 'We have few people here who are rolemodels," he says. 'We have to find our own way. And when we see that it is the wrong way, it is too late.'

Jackson is struggling. White and conservative Mississippi has the city in a hold, controlling schools and finances, and making improvements in education and infrastructure difficult. The state is also trying to annex the airport, a rare source of income for Jackson. The poor black city must remain as poor as possible.

Mississippi is still Mississippi. Blacks are still being lynched, Nia thinks. Last year a black man was found hanging on a tree in the neighborhood. Suicide, said the police. In February, a black man was found hanging from a tree east of Jackson, after a fight with his white ex-girlfriend. Suicide, said the local sheriff. The investigation has recently been reopened. 'The white terror still exists', says Nia.

Her first enthusiasm has been tempered slightly. Since last year there is a new Lumumba on the mayoral throne, the son of the late revolutionary. This one, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, wants to make Jackson 'the most radical city on the planet'. Progressive media are at his feet. But the son is not the father. He lives in a gated community in the better part of the city, far away from the problem areas. His revolution is mainly one of verbal vistas - and in the meantime the pipes are still leaking.

Having fun in the town. Beeld He-myong Woo
Having fun in the town.Beeld He-myong Woo

However, Jackson is all the buzz. Blinded vans run through West Jackson with investors and do-gooders, who are looking if they can do anything. Usually they do not even get out of the bus. Nia distrusts them. 'Then our boys will be allowed to wash the dishes for a minimum wage in a hip restaurant. What are they learning there? They are being exploited.'

Also the Landrovers and Mercedes that drive through the neighborhood are a threat. Real estate agents. Even in West Jackson, now that things are getting better, there is a threat of gentrification, of hip white people with their beards and coffee shops that will drive up rents and expel the original inhabitants. This is precisely why the cooperative buys the land in the district. 'This is now our country. They will not get us out.'

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree

Takuma walks through the neighborhood, pointing to the houses in various states of dissolution, explaining what he intends to do with them. A workshop. A restaurant. In the community house there is an attack plan on a whiteboard. On a rug is a quote of Martin Luther King: 'Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.'

Takuma was a fighter (in his side is still the scar of the English bayonet that stabbed him during Guyanas freedom struggle), now he calls himself a builder. How they fixed Charles's bathroom: that is what dignity is about. 'Black power? Toilet power!'

'If I was just fighting, when would I have time to build?', he says. He goes into the house where they store their building materials. Doors from demolished buildings, stained-glass windows, thick wooden planks - all the things that are not made anymore like that nowadays, with that quality. He talks with love about the German immigrants who once built these houses, and the quality of their timber connections.

Hm. A door has disappeared. The door he had intended for the next building he is refurbishing. He sighs. Stolen. By one of those guys who walk around the neighborhood with shopping carts. Well, someone else will make some money off it, he says. 'There is always another side of the coin. I make the most of what comes, and the least of what goes. You have to be a bit flexible.'

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