Black Mississippians Have Been Fighting a Water Crisis for DecadesRoundup
tags: racism, Mississippi, Environmental Justice, Environmental racism, Jackson Water Crisis
Thomas J. Ward Jr. is assistant dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Farmingdale State College-State University of New York, and author of two books, Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South (University of Arkansas Press, 2003), and Out in the Rural: A Mississippi Health Center and its War on Poverty (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Jackson, Mississippi’s largest city, is facing a water crisis. While the situation was triggered by torrential rains and the flooding of the Pearl River, which then overwhelmed the city’s main water plant, the system was broken even before the recent flooding. Jackson’s (mostly Black) residents have endured years of periodic water shutdowns and boil orders because of burst pipes and high lead levels.
Mississippi is the nation’s poorest state, and Jackson is an impoverished city. In the midst of this crisis, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) has tried to shift the blame to the city’s leadership, stating that “water is not free,” and floating a proposal to privatize the water system in Jackson. But the water crisis is about more than a lack of funds. There are many (majority White) areas of Mississippi where the water and sewer systems are well-maintained, so such crises do not occur. In fact, Mississippi has a long history of White political leaders purposefully, and sometimes illegally, steering needed funding away from Black communities. In response, Black Mississippians have demanded access to clean water and public services, recognizing that these are fundamental civil rights issues.
In 1970, Rosedale, a small, predominantly Black town of about 2,500 residents, deep in the Delta along the Mississippi River, became a site of protests. Black citizens staged boycotts of downtown businesses to try to put pressure on the all-White local government to improve municipal services in the Black sections of town.
Central to their demands were clean water and sewage services, as at that time few homes in the Black community of Rosedale had running water or were connected to the city sewage system. The problem was so severe that when it rained, human feces washed down the unpaved streets of Black Rosedale. At that time, the Rosedale protests got no national exposure, and most Americans did not view water and sewage as civil rights issues, especially in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But to the people of Rosedale, the fight for clean water and sewage access was a fight for basic civil rights long before the term “environmental justice” was coined.
The leader of the Rosedale protests was Johnnie Todd, later elected the town’s first Black mayor. Todd worked at the Tufts-Delta Health Center, a federally funded War on Poverty project in Bolivar County. As part of its mission to improve the health of poor residents, the center established an environmental division to examine living conditions throughout the county.
Andrew James was the director of that division, and what he found in Bolivar horrified him. Only 29 percent of the Black population in the county had piped water; most relied on pumps, hydrants or water hauled in from nearby towns. Some resorted to gathering water from irrigation ditches found on the cotton plantations that they lived and worked on. Most disturbingly, James found that many families stored their water in old 55-gallon drums that had contained pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.