Jim Crow Infrastructure and the Jackson, Miss., “Water Crisis”

Jim Crow Infrastructure and the Jackson, Miss., “Water Crisis”

Jim Crow Infrastructure and the Jackson, Miss., “Water Crisis”

To understand why more rain means less drinking water in Mississippi’s capital, you need to look to the state’s racist past—and the present malign neglect of its Black citizens.


Jackson, Miss.—My introduction to this city’s infrastructure challenges came 10 years ago through the work of my friend and comrade the first Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. The late Mayor Lumumba would travel around the city with a big, corroded chunk of city water pipe so residents could see firsthand how bad things had become. His dogged organizing and talent for breaking down the most complex matters into everyday language got residents to approve a one-cent sales tax increase to generate additional funds for infrastructure repair.

The measure passed in January 2014 with more than 90 percent of the vote. In his speech at the ballot initiative victory party, the mayor said, “We call it the new economic frontier; that’s an infrastructure frontier that we’re building in order to expand our economy and give people more jobs.… We’re going to set an example for the rest of Mississippi, the rest of the country, and, if necessary, the rest of the world.”

That was a little more than six months after the elder Lumumba took office—and just a month before heart failure took his life.

Eight years later, Jackson’s current mayor—Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba—is still battling to reach that “infrastructure frontier.” Months of lobbying to get the state to grant Jackson access to its own special tax funds, decades of divestment and neglect, and the state’s consistent denial of city requests for adequate funding have taken their toll. Now, record flooding has accelerated the sadly inevitable—and preventable—rupture of the city’s crumbling water infrastructure. More than 150,000 residents are without potable water.

Most residents under the age of 50 have no memory of a Jackson without “boil water” notices—the frequent public warnings that the water that comes out of your faucet is not safe to consume in any form without a good, rolling boil. The truth is that the “Jackson Water Crisis”—as the press has dubbed it—has been decades in the making. It’s part and parcel of an infrastructure crisis that is gripping much of the country—but with grossly unequal impact. Its roots are in Jim Crow, the separate that was never equal, where everything from water to parks to food and even air in our communities receives less investment, less protection, and less access. Broken levees in New Orleans. Toxic water in Flint. Crumbling buildings in eastern Kentucky. This is beyond a crisis in infrastructure. It is a crisis in justice.

I am standing outside of Sykes Recreation Center, less than a mile from my home, where volunteers are gathering to hand out water. An hour to go, and cars are already lined up for blocks. Scoring water can be a full-time job right now: tracking down where and when the water will be; waiting hours in line so you can, hopefully, get a flat of bottles before supplies run out.

The crew is well-seasoned and knows the drill. There are jokes and light banter as they get ready for another day of humidity and heavy lifting. Most of them are members of Strong Arms of Mississippi, an organization of returning residents working to address root causes of violence and be a positive force in their communities. They are just one of the more than 30 organizations in the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, a broad network that first came together in the face of Covid. It’s been basically nonstop ever since.

Jackson residents have been the real heroes in this crisis. We show up for each other, offer places to shower, and lift water flats in the hot sun. It shouldn’t have to be this way. My city shouldn’t have to be so resilient. And despite the governor and lieutenant governor’s less-than-subtle insinuation that this crisis is somehow “proof” that this majority-Black city doesn’t have the capacity to govern ourselves, we remind each other that we deserve public investment, that we have a right to quality infrastructure—as Mayor Lumumba often says.

Yet in the United States, unlike most “developed” countries, infrastructure funding is left largely to states and localities. Cities like Jackson, Laredo, Detroit—the list goes on—are left to the political vagaries and biases of politicians who have historically worked to underfund communities of color. How can low-income cities and cities of color overcome the legacy of Jim Crow and rising contemporary racism to get their fair share of funding? With the end of federal revenue-sharing programs that provided direct funding to cities in the 1980s, places like Jackson must garner national attention in order to put pressure on their state agencies to act.

I am answering my 100th text message of the day. There are reporters roaming the long, winding water distribution lines to find frustrated people who will speak out on camera. One reporter wants to talk about the role of white flight in instigating the water crisis—and wants organizers to take her on a tour of especially dilapidated buildings to illustrate her point. We try to explain that it’s not the absence of white people that created this crisis. It is the pernicious persistence of racism. She stands there, eyes glazing over for a moment, then asks if the building across the street is public housing.

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