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Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, is a city with 2 identities — that often clash


Now a tale of two cities, both in Jackson, Miss. There's the Jackson that's more than 80% Black, led by a mayor who wants to make it, quote, "the most radical city on the planet." And then there's Jackson the state capital, which is led by white conservatives. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom reports on how the city's two identities often clash.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Here's a third way Jackson describes itself - the city with soul. Asinia Lukuta Chikuyu (ph) is the assistant manager of the Afrikan Art Gallery and Bookshop. He says you can't separate soul from the blues, which means you can't separate Jackson from its history of oppression.

ASINIA LUKUTA CHIKUYU: When you identified your city as a city of soul, you're identifying your city as a city that has experienced pain. The state government is totally insensitive to that pain.

BISAHA: Chikuyu works on Farish Street. It's just a couple of blocks from the Mississippi State Capitol building and used to be the city's center for Black business, a district packed with people dining, shopping or looking to catch a show. But white flight in the '70s caused economic ruin for much of Jackson, including Ferris Street. Chikuyu blames the state for not providing enough support then and since.

CHIKUYU: Farish Street Historical District is part of what they call downtown Jackson. But when you have your downtown that has a look of blight and decay, that doesn't say that you're prospering as a state capital.

BISAHA: I tell you, it's hot on Farish Street. There's not much shade at all.

Many of the buildings have been boarded up for so long, weeds have reclaimed the interiors. Jacksonian Lucy Moore (ph) is about to grab lunch at one of the district's few remaining restaurants. Her sister's home is one of many in Jackson with water problems due to the city's aging pipes.

LUCY MOORE: But you want to charge her a thousand dollars to use her own water. Her water bill owe a thousand-some dollars, but it's backing up right there in her yard.

BISAHA: Last February, a winter storm left thousands in Jackson without water for weeks. But those problems didn't start with the cold weather, and they didn't disappear when it got warm. Lines have leaked and caused boil water notices for years, while faulty water meters have led to thousand-dollar-plus water bills.

MOORE: Today, the two - the mayor and the government could come together and fix it, so people can live like they supposed to live, not living like they used to live 50 years ago.

BISAHA: Now, the state legislature did recently give the city authority to wipe clean some of those debts.

CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: But it didn't come easy.

BISAHA: Chokwe Antar Lumumba is Jackson's mayor. The city pushed to get a similar bill passed last year, but Governor Tate Reeves vetoed it. The bill returned and passed after the water crisis.

LUMUMBA: And there was a bit of, you know, fighting just to get it on the floor.

BISAHA: Lumumba says Mississippi can't change its place on the bottom of state lists without the legislature providing more support for its largest city.

LUMUMBA: It's cutting off your nose to spite your face, saying that before we recognize the importance of this city that, you know, leads our state in so many respects, would rather sink the entire ship.

BISAHA: Lumumba also blames national politicians for failing to address climate change, which has made Jackson's water problems and all infrastructure problems even worse. The federal infrastructure bill that's still in the works would fund repairs for the nation's water systems, including in Jackson. The city also requested 47 million from the state but got just three. And that's how the relationship usually goes. Jackson says it needs state dollars, Mississippi says it'll help, but other parts of the state need those resources, too. Here's Governor Reeves at a press conference in March.


TATE REEVES: We had 78 different systems throughout the entire state that are having and experiencing challenges. This is not an issue that is unique to our capital city.

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


REEVES: Many of these challenges in their water system were borne over literally 30, 40, 50 years of negligence and ignoring the challenges of the pipes and the system.

BISAHA: Jackson State University professor D'Andra Orey says politics at least partially explain why the leaders clash, but you can't ignore race either.

D'ANDRA OREY: You can't put your finger on that. But there is a history, and that history provides support for my thinking that it's an issue of race.

BISAHA: Standing on the steps of the capitol building, Orey can see the state flag flying across the street. Today, it has a magnolia at its center. But just a year ago, the spot was occupied by a Confederate symbol. Speaking as a Jacksonian, he says the memory of that symbol still makes him angry.

OREY: I have a heart that's still hardened.

BISAHA: Even with the redesign, the memory of it lingers - is too painful?

OREY: Yeah, it is. It is. I mean, you know, I even cried then. It is. Yeah.

BISAHA: He says that pain caused him to avoid coming here, to the center of his city and his state. For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha reporting from Jackson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephan Bisaha
[Copyright 2024 NPR]