‘They let us down’: Water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, flows from systemic racism
Brooke Floyd lives with her husband and twin children on a cul-de-sac in a leafy, middle-class neighborhood in the historic capital city of her state.
Chastity Bass, a single mother, lives with her five children in a considerably poorer section of that same city, in a small apartment that is part of an affordable housing complex.
In the ways income tends to define people in the U.S., Floyd and Bass have little in common. But in Jackson, Mississippi, two things unite them. They are both Black women. And they have both lived for years without something that most people in the richest country in the world expect – the guarantee of clean, clear water.
Over the past two weeks, the attention of the nation has alighted on the catastrophic water infrastructure in Jackson, where the city’s largest water treatment plant failed on Aug. 29, stranding 160,000 people, along with hospitals, fire stations and schools, without safe drinking water. In many cases, these communities had no water service at all. Jackson had already been under a boil-water notice for more than a month. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced this week that the city’s boil-water advisory has been lifted, but residents remained skeptical about the water quality. Advocates encouraged residents to test the water before using it.
For this city in the poorest state in the nation, where 80% of residents are Black and about 25% live in poverty, the crisis is the logical progression of a slowly building disaster at least a half-century in the making. For years, people from all walks of life in Jackson have grown accustomed to having to boil their water every time a storm throws the city’s crumbling water pipes out of whack. Parents regularly add bleach to the water to wash dishes, hoping to prevent bacterial contamination. Over the winter of 2018, a cold snap froze aging pipes in school buildings and children did not go back to school until almost Valentine’s Day. Last winter, the city was under a boil-water advisory for almost a month.
Historians, infrastructure experts and advocates say the water catastrophe in Jackson, like the one that emerged in Flint, Michigan, a few years ago, is the result of generations of neglect by white politicians and policymakers.
“This is the result of deep, historical pain and suffering, and being honest about that is essential to recovery,” said Robert Luckett, a history professor at Jackson State University, a public, historically Black university in Jackson that had to shut its classroom doors last week when the water coming out of faucets on campus started flowing first yellow, then brown.
“People here are resilient, they are coming together with a level of organizing that is rooted in the same communities that fueled the modern civil rights movement,” Luckett said. “But they are living under conditions brought on by systemic racism and just outright hostility to this Black city from the leadership of this state.”
Last year, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan presaged the current crisis, visiting the plant that ultimately gave way this August and citing it as an example of what his agency called “long-standing environmental justice concerns in historically marginalized communities.”
On Sept. 7, Regan met with Gov. Reeves, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and other elected officials to discuss immediate steps to improve the city’s crumbling water system. He promised tens of millions of dollars in federal loans to help get the water system up and running. Reeves had already mobilized the National Guard to help run water distribution sites in the city. He and Lumumba talked cooperation.
But the show of unity at the meeting belied years of well-documented neglect by Mississippi state officials that led up to the current crisis.
For years, city leaders have pleaded with Reeves and other state leaders for the means to fund infrastructure repairs. An effort by Lumumba, Jackson’s progressive mayor, to raise sales taxes to pay for infrastructure repairs was quashed by lawmakers in the almost entirely white, Republican-dominated state Legislature. A bill last year that would have authorized the sale of bonds to assist Jackson with making repairs and improvements to water and sewer systems died in the Republican-controlled state House Ways and Means Committee. Rather than provide support from the state, Reeves has said stricter efforts are needed to collect payments on water bills from city residents.
“The people of Jackson have been crying out about the water crisis for generations. It’s not a new issue, it’s a systemic issue, a civil rights issue, and a public health crisis as well,” said Waikinya Clanton, who as head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi state office, based in Jackson, has been working with organizers from across the state to distribute water to city residents.
‘Scraping and scrambling’
The SPLC’s Mississippi State Organizing Team has been collecting and delivering bottled water to Jackson residents, as well as managing the water distribution site at the Sykes Park Community Center in the city, Clanton said.
In the first days of the crisis, the SPLC allocated $10,000 to bolster the efforts of the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, made up of more than 30 grassroots community organizations giving out water, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Working together with the city, coalition partners have identified and delivered water and other supplies to elderly and disabled residents who are unable to get to water distribution sites. They have rented vehicles from U-Haul and enlisted the help of volunteers who own trucks. When coalition members realized that some public drinking fountains had not been turned off, they petitioned the city to do so to prevent children from unknowingly drinking harmful water.
The coalition was formed two years ago when a series of heavy storms in rural areas of the state displaced thousands of people, said Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the nonprofit One Voice.
“We stayed together, hopping from disaster to disaster, attempting to address the need,” Lambright said. “None of us were established to do this sort of work, frankly. We are just scraping and scrambling with our limited support that we get that’s really supposed to be for advocacy work. But if we can’t rely on our government, we have to fight to address the needs of underserved communities.”
Coalition partners, including the SPLC, are discussing ways to provide water filtration systems and other support to homes, nursing and long-term care facilities, community centers and schools.
“The reality is that for far too long Black people here in the state of Mississippi have had to live under these types of conditions,” Clanton said. “What we’re seeing here play out in this water crisis is compounded not only by racial division, but by political division. It has been the motive of those with power to keep those who lack power without it.
“At the SPLC, our aim is to ensure that people living in poverty in the Deep South can get the help that they need from their local, state and federal government, and that they are not punished or exploited just because of the color of their skin or where their address happens to be.”
In Brooke Floyd’s neighborhood, residents are used to seeing piles of dirt in the street and weaving around cones as one water line or another fails. Residents install filters on every faucet. Floyd, 43, said she stopped drinking the tap water in Jackson long ago, when she was pregnant and a doctor warned her against it, saying the water contained high levels of lead. When the twins were born, nurses cautioned her not to use tap water to make their formula, she said. Ever since, she has taught them to use bottled water to brush their teeth. They buy bottled water for cooking. Whenever the city institutes one of its not-infrequent notices to boil water, they switch seamlessly.
When Floyd drove two hours with her son and daughter last weekend to visit family, she said, the children were shocked to learn they could use water from the tap to brush their teeth.
“They’ve never used water out of the faucet, period,” she said. “I felt terrible. They thought everyone in America lives like this.”
Floyd realized something was seriously wrong at the end of July when she used tap water to refill the family fish tank. The fish died, she said, upsetting her children. Since then, she has been giving bottled water to the family dog.
On Labor Day, when Floyd heard rumors that the water plant might soon go offline, she turned on the faucet in her bathtub and let it run, readying buckets with water to flush the toilets in the house. The water was dark brown, she said, with particles floating in it.
Since then, she has been buying cases of water, not just for her family, but to deliver in areas where people lack the resources or the ability to buy their own. At home, the water service has been intermittent. What does come out has a yellow tinge, she said, and smells “almost bleachy.”
“I’m angry, I’m frustrated and I’m mad,” Floyd said. “They’re choking us off. They’re cutting us off. We’re here. All of us are here and we deserve to live like everyone else in the United States. All of us deserve to thrive.”
For generations, the white leaders of cities across the South didn’t give much thought to helping Black citizens thrive. Schools remained segregated for more than a decade after the milestone Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. In 1969, another U.S. Supreme Court decision, Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, ordered the immediate desegregation of public schools across the South.
When the next school year began, in the fall of 1970, white parents moved more than 10,000 students out of Jackson schools, Luckett said. By the end of that school year, 40% of students in the public schools had left, and with them much of the white political, economic and religious elite of the city. Many white parents enrolled their children in private academies that were explicitly segregationist, some of them run by white supremacist groups – called White Citizens’ Councils – that were formed in response to the integration of public schools.
From that point on, public investment in the city began to dry up, Luckett said. The declining population sapped the city’s tax base. The remaining white political leaders, bolstered by an at-large city government structure that favored their political base, continued to hold power in Jackson for years, even as the population of the city became increasingly Black. In 1985, when the city finally transitioned to a more representative, ward-based city council, Black political leaders emerged, even as more white residents left.
Today, Mississippi politicians don’t have to answer to whether Black people in places like Jackson have water to drink. Even though the state is 38% Black, the state’s white voters are overwhelmingly conservative. As a result, every statewide elected official is a white Republican.
Zakiya Summers, a Democrat who has represented Jackson in the state Legislature since January 2020, said she has grown increasingly dismayed by the lack of statewide support for the people of Jackson. State Republican leaders blocked $47 million earmarked this year for water and sewer repairs, she said. Lawmakers ignored repeated requests for funding from Jackson Mayor Lumumba.
These days, she and her husband have been buying cases of water to load onto their Nissan pickup truck and take to her constituents. Even many of those who have water pressure in their homes now are afraid to use it, she said.
“You have to ask the question, if this were happening in any one of the suburbs around Jackson … would we see a response that is more responsive, more supportive, more engaging?” Summers said.
“I don’t particularly love to talk about systemic racism. I’m not trying to paint a dark cloud, but the fact of the matter is, if we don’t talk about these things, then we cannot address them and bring real solutions.”
Over in her Rebel Woods Drive apartment, Chastity Bass, 33, has it hard even on the easiest of days. She is juggling a job, five children – ages 15, 10, 9, 5 and 3 – and now, water that comes in intermittent trickles. She still has found time to work with a nonprofit, the Poor People’s Campaign, to distribute water in her neighborhood.
“When you’re passing out the water and you see the looks on the people’s faces, the old people’s faces, they just look at you with tears in their eyes and it does something to you,” Bass said.
Bath time finds Bass lining up her young kids, soaping them up and washing them with bottled water she pours over them in the tub. She has been spending her limited funds on paper plates and takeout food to avoid washing dishes. When she does use the tap water to wash, she adds a teaspoon of bleach.
“One thing is, I’m a survivor. I have to do what I have to do,” Bass said. “But I got to ask, the water in Jackson, it’s been messed up for a while. I just feel like certain people, like the governor, they let us down.”
Picture at top: Since Labor Day, Brooke Floyd of Jackson, Mississippi, has been buying cases of water, both for her family as well as to distribute to others in the city who are unable to buy water themselves. “All of us are here and we deserve to live like everyone else in the United States,” she says. (Credit: Rory Doyle)