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

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.

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