New York’s iconic Apollo Theater was aglitter the December night Waikinya Clanton, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi state office, took the stage. Named one of 100 most influential Black Americans of 2022 by the prestigious online magazine The Root, Clanton seemed comfortable in the spotlight of an awards ceremony that included celebrities, politicians and media stars.
But the glamour was deceiving. On just about any other day back in Mississippi, Clanton is more likely to be found far from the limelight, doing the work.
Since Clanton left a high-powered position with the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., in 2021 to return to the state her family has called home for four generations, the work has been particularly urgent and hard. In August, the state’s majority-Black capital city of Jackson was hit by a catastrophic crisis when its largest water treatment plant failed, leaving thousands of residents, businesses, schools and hospitals without safe drinking water.
Under Clanton’s leadership, the SPLC collected more than $45,000 in direct contributions to address the water crisis and used it to distribute water, testing kits and filters to local schools and communities. The SPLC also allocated $10,000 to bolster the efforts of the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, comprising more than 30 grassroots community organizations. The SPLC also deployed organizers to support the work of the coalition throughout the Jackson area.
Together, they delivered thousands of pallets of water, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes directly to communities in need. Working together with the city, coalition partners delivered water and other supplies to elderly and disabled residents who were unable to get to water distribution sites. They rented hauling vehicles and enlisted the help of volunteers who owned trucks. And 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.
“Having her at the helm of the Mississippi office while going through what I would call the pressure point of the Jackson water crisis was incredibly helpful,” said Charles Taylor, executive director of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP. “She has been an intimate partner with the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, a trusted voice in our community. She is someone who puts people first.”
The Root is a Black-oriented online magazine founded in 2008 by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and former Washington Post publisher Donald Graham (Graham sold his interest in the magazine in 2015). The Root prides itself on “Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude,” according to its website.
Its list of the 100 most influential Black Americans, now in its 13th year, includes the likes this year of Michelle Obama (1), Serena Williams (2), and Vice President Kamala Harris (9).
Clanton ranks 42nd, ahead of singers Jennifer Hudson and Rihanna (43 and 44, respectively), actress Viola Davis (45) and NBA superstar LeBron James (50).
The Root considers each honoree’s social media reach and the impact of their work in establishing their ranking on the list.
“The Root 100 list prides itself on shouting out trailblazers like Waikinya Clanton,” the magazine stated on its listing of Clanton. “As the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi state office, Clanton partners with organizations throughout the region to do the long-term work necessary to eradicate racial injustice.”
‘Safe and drinkable water’
In well-worn sneakers, her face shielded by a baseball cap, Clanton took time from coordinating efforts during the height of the crisis in Jackson to deliver cases of water bottles herself. The SPLC and the other coalition partners haven’t stopped since. With the long-term outlook for safe water shaky, they are moving to provide water filtration systems, water quality testing and other support to homes, nursing and long-term care facilities, community centers and schools.
Since the crisis first emerged, Clanton has been among those openly calling out the systemic injustices that gave rise to it. That night at the Apollo Theater, the historic venue in the heart of Harlem, was no exception. In an emotional Root 100 list acceptance speech earlier this month to Black leaders from the arts, politics, media, business and community activism that alluded to her personal journey to leadership roles with the DNC and the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women and back to Mississippi, Clanton said, “When more than 100,000 people who look like you, talk like you, walk like you and live where you do are without clean drinking water, it becomes personal.
“The faces and impacts of white supremacy are evolving,” Clanton said. “Instead of being draped in white hoods, they sit around tables draped in white tablecloths as they negotiate the collective future of the Black and Brown people of this country. Instead of burning crosses in the front lawns of homes and churches, they are threatening to take and privatize the very lifeblood that is clean, safe and drinkable water.”
It was the enduring impact of white supremacy that first called Clanton, the daughter of a minister from Canton, Mississippi, to public service, that landed her in Washington, and that brought her back to tackle injustice at home.
Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. More than 30% of its children live in extreme poverty. But to get elected and reelected, Mississippi’s politicians don’t have to confront the state’s endemic problems. Even though Mississippi is 38% Black, the state’s white voters are overwhelmingly conservative, and a Jim Crow-era election system that endures to this day ensures that white conservatives dominate the political landscape – including control of the state Legislature. In addition, more than one in 10 adults in Mississippi are denied the right to vote because of criminal disenfranchisement laws. Since Reconstruction, Mississippi has not had a single Black statewide officeholder.
The infrastructure of Jackson, where more than 80% of residents are Black, has been subjected to generations of neglect by white politicians and policymakers. In recent years, despite the attention on Jackson’s water problems, not much has changed. 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. An effort by Jackson’s progressive mayor to raise sales taxes to pay for infrastructure repairs was quashed by the state Legislature. Rather than provide support, state leaders have said stricter efforts are needed to collect payments on water bills from city residents.
Training community organizers
As a daughter of Mississippi, Clanton is used to battling uphill. Her all-out push to combat the water crisis is just one of a series of moves she has made since she launched the SPLC’s Mississippi state office last year. Earlier this year, she launched the SPLC’s first-ever Advocacy Institute, a series of education seminars to build advocacy skills among those most affected by systemic disenfranchisement.
The seminars, held on the campus of Tougaloo College near Jackson, offer fellows – chosen through a competitive application process – stipends to participate in seminars with prominent policymakers, elected officials, advocates and attorneys on the skills they need to grow their efforts in their communities. They learn how to organize protests, lobby elected officials, apply for grants, draft policy papers and communicate with media outlets to better bring attention to issues affecting their communities. The SPLC plans to grow the institute into a lasting training ground for new organizers throughout the Deep South, focused on community education and transformative change.
“It’s about building capacity throughout the state of Mississippi,” Clanton said. “If we want to effect change, we have to show up, we have to continue to do that critical work. But most importantly, we build power from within.”
On that night at the Apollo, Clanton was far from her home, dressed up, surrounded by glitterati. But that was not what was most on her mind. She wanted to talk about Mississippi.
“This is a place that is not short of crises. Whether it’s food insecurity, housing challenges, health care, you know, we run the gamut,” Clanton said. “The best thing you can do to confront those crises is to build muscle, is to prepare for it. Every test, every moment requires the type of animalistic instinct that is required to be a large presence. My history has allowed me to build up the muscle that is necessary and strength that is necessary to lead through crisis, and to lead in collaboration with people who have been so committed to doing this work.”
Photo at top: The Root has recognized Waikinya Clanton, the SPLC's Mississippi state office director, for her leadership in the Jackson water crisis and other efforts to eradicate racial injustice.