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Politics

Jackson, Miss. lives in a world of high poverty and higher expectations

A monument to the women of the Confederacy stands in front of the Mississippi State Capitol.
A monument to the women of the Confederacy stands in front of the Mississippi State Capitol.

This is a tale of two Jackson, Mississippis.

There's Jackson, the state capital, run historically by white conservatives. Then there's Jackson, the 82 percent Black city, run by a mayor wanting to make it "the most radical city on the planet."

February's winter storm and water crisis provided just the latest high profile example of the two Jackson's clashing. State and local governments have made a pastime out of pointing fingers at each other for the city's woes, from crime to potholes to urban blight.

Mississippi leaders say Jackson is just one city and can't hog resources to fix problems found elsewhere in the state too. Jackson leaders say they need more state support and that Mississippi can't thrive while its largest city suffers.

For Jacksonians, it can feel like Jackson the city versus Jackson the capital.

"I don't see this legislative body as representing me," said Jackson State University Professor D'Arby Orey, referring to the Mississippi Legislature. "I don't really expect it to provide support for Jackson."

Frozen Pipes And Icy Relationships

After a winter storm ravaged the Deep South, thousands of Jackson residents were left without water for weeks. Boil water notices lasted even longer.

Yet problems with Jackson's water didn't start with the cold weather or go away when it got warm. For years, aging pipes have led to leaks, while faulty water meters caused residents to get bills breaking past a thousand dollars.

That happened to Lucy Moore's sister, who's stuck with a four figure bill as water overflows into her backyard.

"Today the mayor and the governor can come together and fix it," Moore said. "So people can live like they supposed to live. Not living like they used to live 50 years ago."

Big Apple Inn is one of the few restaurants remaining on Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi.
/ Stephan Bisaha
Big Apple Inn is one of the few restaurants remaining on Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi.

The state legislature did recently give the city authority to wipe clean some of those debts. But that was after Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed a similar bill last year. It took the water crisis to get the city and state to turn the bill into law.

Yet the disaster-caused cooperation had limits – the city requested $47 million to fix its aging water system. The state provided $3 million.

That's usually how the relationship goes. Jackson requests state dollars, Mississippi says it will help, but other parts of the state need those resources too.

"We had 78 different systems throughout the entire state that were having and experiencing challenges," Reeves said at a press conference in March. "This is not an issue that is unique to our capital city."

State politicians also often say city leaders need to take more responsibility.

"The prime mover needs to be the city itself. It's the city of Jackson, Mississippi," Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann told the Mississippi Free Press. "How much money is it going to take, and how do you even pay for it? I haven't seen any of that."

Mississippi often places last on state lists for everything from health to income. Jackson also struggles with the same problems, with 23 percent of the city falling below the poverty line.

Jackson's mayor says the fate of the city and state can't be separated – more support from Mississippi for its largest city would mean growth for the rest of the state.

"Without question it can't change without a significant alteration in the relationship with the city of Jackson" Lumumba says. "Ultimately it is not just a Jackson problem. It is a state of Mississippi problem."

But Lumumba plans on moving ahead with a radical, progressive agenda without waiting on state support.

"You're invited to the party," Lumumba says. "But the party is going to start before you get here."

"I have A Heart That's Still Hardened"

A mural of writer Richard Wright is painted on the wall of the Smith Robertson Museum, a few blocks from the Mississippi State Capitol.
/ Stephan Bisaha
A mural of writer Richard Wright is painted on the wall of the Smith Robertson Museum, a few blocks from the Mississippi State Capitol.

There's a third way to describe Jackson – The City With Soul.

Asinia Lukuta Chikuyu, assistant manager at the Afrikan Art Gallery And Bookstore in Jackson, says that's more than just a catchy line – it reflects Jackson's painful history. You can't separate Soul from the Blues, he says, which means you can't separate Jackson from its history of oppression.

"The Blues come from deep down in your soul, from the experiences that you've had with oppression," Chikuyu says. "That pain is directly related to the racial relationships that have existed in Mississippi. However, the state government is totally insensitive to that pain."

Chikuyu works on Farish Street, just a couple blocks from the Mississippi State Capitol. The street used to be the center of Black business in Jackson. Up until the 70's, the district was packed with people dining, shopping or looking to catch a show.

Handprints mark one of the boarded up buildings on Farish Street. Some lots on the street have been overtaken by weeds.
/ Stephan Bisaha
Handprints mark one of the boarded up buildings on Farish Street. Some lots on the street have been overtaken by weeds.

But the white flight that followed desegregation caused economic ruin for much of Jackson, including Farish Street. Many of the buildings today have been boarded up long enough their interiors have been reclaimed by weeds.

Chikuyu blames the state for not providing enough support then and since.

"Farish Historical District is part of what they call Downtown Jackson," Chikuyu says. "But when you have your downtown that has a look of plight and decay, then that doesn't say you're prospering as a state capital."

Republican state leaders either did not respond to requests for comment or were unavailable.

For some Jacksonians, the capitol building that occupies the center of their city is a reminder that decisions enforcing Jim Crow and segregation were made behind those pillars. That history isn't hidden, either. Beneath the steps leading up to the capitol's entrance stands a monument to the women of the Confederacy.

The Mississippi State Capitol building overlooks Downtown Jackson.
/ Stephan Bisaha
The Mississippi State Capitol building overlooks Downtown Jackson.

One of those symbols was removed last year, when Missisisppi voted to redesign its state flag – a confederate emblem was replaced with a magnolia flower.

But the memory of that replaced flag still causes anger for some Jacksonians, including D'Andra Orey. He's a political science professor at Jackson State University. He's studied the psychological toll those symbols can have on Black Americans, including the former flag.

As a resident of Jackson, Orey avoided the state capitol for years. Even with the new flag flying across the street, the memory is still painful.

"I have a heart that's still hardened," Orey says. "It literally continues to hold anger."

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