He was born in Kasai province of the Belgian Congo. He was educated at a missionary school and worked in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) and Stanleyville (Kisangani) as a clerk and journalist. In 1955 Lumumba became regional president of a Congolese trade union and joined the Belgian Liberal Party. He was arrested in 1957 on charges of embezzlement and imprisoned for a year. On his release he helped found the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) in 1958. In 1959 Belgium announced a five year path to independence and in the December local elections the MNC won a convincing majority despite Lumumba being under arrest at the time. A 1960 conference in Belgium agreed to bring independence forward to June 1960 with elections in May. Lumumba and the MNC formed the first government on June 23, 1960, with Lumumba as Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu as President.
His rule was marked by the political disruption when the province of Katanga declared independence under Moise Tshombe in June 1960 with Belgian support. Despite the arrival of United Nations troops unrest continued and Lumumba sought Soviet aid. In September Lumumba was dismissed from government by Kasavubu, an act of dubious legality. On September 14 a coup d'etat headed by Colonel Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) and supported by Kasavubu gained power. Lumumba was arrested on December 1, 1960 by troops of Mobutu. He was captured in Port Francqui and flown to Leopoldville in handcuffs. Mobutu said Lumumba would be tried for inciting the army to rebellion and other crimes. United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold made an appeal to Kasavubu asking that Lumumba be treated according to due process of law. The USSR denounced Hammarskjold and the Western Powers as responsible for Lumumba's arrest and demanded his release.
The United Nations Security Council was called into session on December 7 to consider Soviet demands that the U.N. seek Lumumba's immediate release, the immediate restoration of Lumumba as head of the Congo government, the disarming of the forces of Mobutu, and the immediate evacuation of Belgians from the Congo. Soviet Representative Valerian Zorin refused U.S. demands that he disqualify himself as Security Council President during the debate. Secretary General Dag Hammarskj÷ld, answering Soviet attacks against his Congo operations, said that if the U.N. force were withdrawn from the Congo "I fear everything will crumble."
Following a U.N. report that Lumumba had been mistreated by his captors, his followers threated (on December 9) to arrest all Belgians and "start cutting off the heads of some of them" unless Lumumba was released within 48 hours.
The threat to the U.N. cause was intensified by the announcement of the withdrawal of their U.N. Congo contingents by Yugoslavia, the United Arab Republic, Ceylon, Indonesia, Morocco, and Guinea. The Soviet pro-Lumumba resolution was defeated on December 14 by a vote of 8-2. On the same day, a Western resolution that would have given Hammarskjold increased powers to deal with the Congo situation was vetoed by the Soviet Union.
Lumumba was then transported on January 17, 1961 from the military prison in Thysville near Leopoldville to a 'more secure' prison in Jadotville in the Katanga Province. There were reports that Lumumba and his fellow prisoners, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, were beaten by provincial police upon their arrival in secessionist Katanga.
Two months later, Lumumba was executed.
In February of 2002, the Belgian government admitted to "an irrefutable portion of responsibility in the events that led to the death of Lumumba."
In July of 2002 documents released by the United States government revealed that the CIA had played a role in Lumumba's assassination, aiding his opponents with money and political support, and in the case of Mobutu with weapons and military training.