A legacy of death, deprivation and depravity haunts and punctuates the history of the state of Mississippi, especially when it comes to Black life and struggle. Jackson, Miss., had high hopes of moving forward in recent years but past disparity, persistent problems and unusual weather left the city lacking a basic necessity: Water.
And the state capital — with an 80 percent Black population, a hard working and progressive mayor in Chokwe A. Lumumba and home to historic Jackson State University — still struggles without water.
Last month a devastating winter storm started the crisis by leaving many residents with no running water. By early March, it had been almost three weeks of suffering and the National Guard was brought in to help distribute drinking water and water unfit for drinking was given out to flush toilets.
According to the city, some 11,000 households, or around 40,000 people, were still without running water March 3. City officials could not say for sure when water service would be restored. At least 100 water main breaks and leaks have been reported. The entire town remained under a boil water notice. Crews completing the repairs have described city pipes, some over 100 years old, like peanut brittle, in focusing on the need for a significant overhaul of Jackson’s failed infrastructure.
Residents of the city go through this ordeal damn near yearly. City officials and statements from 2010 and 2018 resonate with the same sense of frustration.
“The city’s water mains are more than a century old, and its infrastructure needs went unaddressed for decades,” Democratic Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has said. “We more than likely have more than a $2 billion issue with our infrastructure.”
Failure to address this problem as a statewide issue is where the moral depravity of racism again rears its ugly head, and the mean game played is blame the victim. It’s no secret by most accounts that addressing the length and breadth of the infrastructure problem will require help from both the state and federal levels.
For many Whites, Jackson is derogatorily known as “Jafrica,” and they see no good reason to help.
According to Mississippi Today, the ongoing water crisis results from decades of inaction from city leaders, who put off routine maintenance and meaningful infrastructure repairs as the city’s tax base and revenue collections diminished.
But having dealt for decades with aging and brittle pipes and less money coming in, current and former city leaders say they need investment from the state and the federal government.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s response was a signature response; he railed against city officials. “If you remember during Kane Ditto’s administration, he did repair work on water and sewer,” Mr. Hosemann said, referring to the last White Jackson mayor who left office in 1997. “So what’s happened since then? The prime mover (of solving the problem) needs to be the city itself. Those people have to come up with a reasonable plan to get their water bills out on time.”
Mr. Hosemann complained to the media: “Where do you start? What are the most complicated places? What’s your plan to do that? How much money is it going to take, and how do you even pay for it? I haven’t seen any of that. Clearly, it’s not the state. The city is the city of Jackson. It elects its mayor; it elects its city councilmen. And those people need to come up with a plan,” reported Mississippi Today.
“Statewide elected officials are White; the state of Mississippi has never elected a Black statewide official, and legislative leaders who control the state’s budget are White. Most of the city’s White residents like Hosemann, because of more recent infrastructure upgrades in northeast Jackson and their proximity to water treatment plants, rarely experience long-term outages,” Mississippi Today noted.
Republican Governor Tate Reeves said March 3, “I do think it’s really important that the city of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.”
Jackson has about 160,000 residents and everyone has been told to boil any water that actually runs in their homes. As the Associated Press reported, “Jackson voters in 2014 approved a one cent local sales tax to pay for improvements to roads and water and sewer systems … the city council voted to seek legislative approval for another election to double that local tax to two cents a dollar. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves would have to agree to letting Jackson have the tax election.”
The day before the governor spoke March 3, Mayor Lumumba, the son of a legendary activist and lawyer who fought for Black people, wrote to state and federal leaders asking for an emergency appropriation of $47 million to make repairs necessary to solve this current crisis. He estimates a complete water and sewer replacement project would cost more than six times the city’s annual budget.
“This is not a new issue. It’s certainly been around for decades,” human rights attorney Jaribu Hill told The Final Call. “And the current administration did inherit this failed infrastructure, along with the lack of adequate and equitable resources. It continues to be because Jackson is a predominantly Black city.”
“This infrastructure issue is connected to the disparities that we see over and over again, in terms of financial disparities, economic and growth disparities, and limits on how much is actually coming into the city to address these issues. There’s not a lot of support you know on the government side; the federal government and state support are not as forthcoming or as generous.”
In terms of the current Lumumba administration, Ms. Hill stated it was unfair to expect him to fix the problem overnight. She did, however, call for transparency and demystification of the problem.
“And we have seen the same issues with the premier university in the capital city, Jackson State University. We have seen the woeful disparities in terms of economic resources and the sharing of the wealth that’s received by the majority White schools in the state. Jackson is the capital, why isn’t there more attention being paid? And where are the gaps in terms of accountability? As far as the state is concerned, where are the gaps in state government responsibility to the city of Jackson? You’re living still in a really, really hostile environment that is racially polarized. We’re still living that type of structural racism. And until that is dismantled, we’re going to see these disparities,” Ms. Hill said.
In concluding, Ms. Hill, the executive director of the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights, told The Final Call, “Mayor Lumumba comes from a strong legacy. The people resoundingly elected him. And so what we saw is a young man who stepped into a leadership and inherited a lot of baggage from the past. And what we see now is a need to hunker down, listen to Jackson’s people, and inform the people as to what the real problems are. Inform the people as to what the contradictions are. And at this time, it’s imperative that our leaders do not turn on each other, but that they turn to each other and recognize the bigger picture.”