“Plantation politics” to blame for Jackson, Mississippi water crisis

Jackson, Mississippi’s water system has had chronic issues for years now. A racist statewide government is largely to blame

April 11, 2023 by Natalia Marques
The national guard distributes water in Jackson during their summer 2022 water crisis (Photo: Staff Sgt. Connie Jones, US Army National Guard)

Jackson, Mississippi made international headlines last summer when from August 30 to September 5, water stopped flowing entirely for over 150,000 residents. In the seven months since then, the Mississippi capital’s water system has been plagued with crisis after crisis. And yet, the crumbling water infrastructure remains largely unchanged. Why is this? The answer lies in the antagonistic and racist attitude that majority white state leadership has towards the Black officials of Jackson, which has one of the largest Black populations per capita of any city in the US. Through blocked funding and power grabs, Mississippi has over and over sabotaged infrastructural improvement in its own capital.

A water crisis that never ended

On March 22, over six months since Jackson’s water crisis over the summer of 2022, the New York Times reported that a water pipe in Jackson, Mississippi was leaking five million gallons of water a day—enough water to serve the daily needs of a third of the city.

The last boil water notice, a type of warning issued when there is a problem with the local water system, was as recent as February 19. These sorts of advisories have happened frequently since before the start of the new year, speaking to a chronic issue. In fact, the city of Jackson has issued over 300 boil water notices in the past two years. In the past four years, the city has suffered over 7,300 water line breaks.

As recently as Christmas Eve, a freeze caused faucets to once again run dry. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found lead in Jackson’s water supply, and to this day two thirds of water samples still contain lead. No amount of lead in water is safe for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Jackson’s crumbling and aged water infrastructure leaves the population vulnerable to contaminants such as E. coli, requiring frequent boil water notices. A double-edged sword, as boiling water increases lead concentration.

“Plantation politics”

On January 6, Jackson mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a self-described socialist and radical, announced that the city was able to secure over USD 800 million in federal funds for the water system. However, in mid-January, Republican Mississippi State Senator David Parker introduced the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act (SB 2889), which would have effectively handed over control of Jackson’s water system from the city and to the state. The bill ultimately died on March 8, but not before passing in the Senate on February 7. Right now, a federal manager, appointed by the Department of Justice, is temporarily in charge of Jackson’s water system.

This represents more than a bureaucratic power grab. This is just a small example of the distrust that white, conservative state politicians have towards the Black leadership of the Blackest city in the Blackest state in the entire country.

In the same vein of SB 2889 is HB 1020, a bill which just recently passed the Mississippi legislature and was sent to the Governor’s desk on March 31. This bill would expand the Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID) to draw a line around the whitest, most affluent parts of Jackson, further segregating an already segregated city. The expanded CCID would extend the authority of the Capitol Police, which are controlled by the state, not the city of Jackson (the capital of Mississippi). These police officers would not be beholden to Jackson residents, or even Jackson officials. They would be beholden to a separate structure of judges appointed by white officials, taking power away from the democratically elected judges of Hinds County, all of whom are Black. The bill would also divert 18.75% of sales tax revenue from Jackson coffers to the CCID.

Last year, Mississippi Capitol Police shot and killed 25-year-old Black father Jaylen Lewis. This was the third shooting carried out by Capitol Police in a six-week period.

The legacy of Jim Crow in Mississippi, a state which is often referred to as the cradle of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, still runs deep. HB 1020 is further evidence of this, says Christian leader Jason Coker, who writes in the Mississippi Free Press, “Mississippi history teaches us that we are historically one of the most racist states in the nation, and we continue to hold that position.”

“The majority of our state legislators, who are almost all white and wealthy, want to draw a line around the whitest portion of Jackson and take governing control over it,” Coker adds.

Mayor Lumumba said of HB 1020 and SB 2889, “It is apartheid, as we have called it. It is plantation politics.”

No Black person has held a statewide office in Mississippi since the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction, over 130 years ago. Mississippi has the largest percentage of Black people of any state in the US.

Hostile and racist state government withholds funding 

When Jackson was experiencing its water crisis in the summer of 2022, conservative Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said at a Hattiesburg event, “I’ve got to tell you, it is a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It’s also, as always, a great day to not be in Jackson.”

Reeves and other statewide officials have repeatedly expressed their distrust of Jackson’s Black leadership. Reeves excluded Jackson’s own mayor from press conferences about the water crisis. Why? The governor’s communications director suggested that the city leadership was not a source of “honest information.”

Except it was Reeves who had repeatedly withheld the funding necessary to repair Jackson’s crumbling water infrastructure for years. Mayor Lumumba has claimed that the state has used funding as leverage to demand more and more control over the city. According to Lumumba, the Lieutenant Governor told Lumumba to “give me my airport” in exchange for funding, referring to the state’s long term ambition to control Jackson’s airport. This is the same Lieutenant Governor who asked the Mississippi Free Press, “You remember during Kane Ditto’s administration? He did repair work on water and sewer. So what happened since then?” Ditto was Jackson’s last white mayor.

A recent report by writer Hadas Thier, published in The Nation, details just how deeply the state has sabotaged the efforts of Jackson’s leadership to solve the water crisis. State Senator John Horhn, who has tried to secure funding for Jackson despite the will of other state leaders, claimed that the state has a whopping four billion in non-obligated resources. But when Horhn moved to allocate at least $100 million to the needs of the capital city, “the motion died for lack of a second.”

Reeves has tried to justify the state’s lack of funding towards Jackson, saying “It’s 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.” However, the city of Jackson has chronic water meter issues, making bill collection extremely difficult. This is an issue which also requires funding to solve, funding which the state of Mississippi is fighting tooth and nail not to provide. In September, the NAACP filed a civil rights complaint against the state for diverting funds away from Jackson and towards majority white communities.

As Peoples Dispatch has previously reported, the origin of Jackson’s woes lies in the mass exodus of a wealthy white population after the city desegregated schools back in 1970. Racist attitudes against the self-governance of Black people in the US are also present in the state of Mississippi’s orientation towards the leadership of Jackson.

In a city still contending from the fallout of multiple water crises, city council was unable to reach an agreement on a renewal of a contract with a trash collections company. Trash pickup has suddenly ended in Jackson. “A slim majority of the City Council has again voted down a garbage collection contract that would save the City millions of dollars, provide good paying jobs to Jackson residents and prevent us from enduring an unnecessary public health and environmental crisis,” said Mayor Lumumba.

Lumumba has called the federal funding for Jackson’s water infrastructure, now temporarily managed by federally-appointed third party Jackson Water System Administrator Ted Henifin, a “light at the end of this tunnel.” Jackson waits with bated breath for infrastructural improvements to get done as soon as possible—without a hostile takeover from the state government.