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Jackson, Miss. faces challenges from multiple directions

While Jackson, Miss. continues to struggle with its water system, it faces challenges from a nearby suburb as well as from state officials.
Jackson, Miss. faces challenges from multiple directions
Posted at 6:42 PM, Apr 24, 2023

The NAACP has filed a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi and its Governor Tate Reeves after the governor signed two pieces of legislation into law that critics say violate the 14th amendment and attempt to take power from the majority Black city of Jackson. 

"To be clear, this legislation is nothing new. The people of Jackson have been silenced and have faced years of discriminatory disinvestment and neglect from the state government which led to the major water crisis they are still dealing with to this day. If elected officials in Mississippi want to help address the results of their negligence and improve the lives of Jackson residents, they should start with completing improvements to Jackson's water system, not undermining the constitutional rights of their citizens," says NAACP president and CEO, Derrick Johnson. 

Jackson, Mississippi has its southern charm, but its woes are well documented, including poverty, disinvestment, crime and a failing water system. Add to that, challenges from outside of Jackson. 

A mechanic shop may be the last place you'd expect to find the mayor of a city, but three-term Byram, Mississippi Mayor Richard White made his business into his makeshift mayor's office. 

SEE MORE: Federal funding helps Jackson, Mississippi address water crisis

"I do it full time. You know, my public works guy, he knows that I work full time for both companies," said White. 

Byram is a suburb of about 12,000 that borders Jackson to the south. The relationship between Jackson, the struggling poor city, versus Byram, a growing community with a dynamic business scene, has been very contentious. The two were in a legal battle for years over Jackson's attempts to annex Byram. 

"We had to fight Jackson because they wanted it. They tried to annex us, and that's what caused the whole problem. We were a great community and a great school system, and so they wanted to annex us, and we just didn't feel like that was right thing," said White 

Now, Byram is dangling a $5 million check in front of the mayor of Jackson to break away from its contract with Jackson's water system and start its own utility. 

Byram officials cite shut-offs and poor service from the cash-strapped city as the reason.

"I mean, it's time for things to change. So that's what we want to do. And we're not mad. But I saw about 80% of our time spent messing with the water in our city. And it's not right," White said. 

Bill Miley is head of Public Works for Byram. 

"If you're not getting a response out of Jackson, that's when they call us and we try to do what we can to expedite the repair," Miley said. 

He went on to explain that many Byram residents act like the water system is owned by Byram. "So, we might as well own it," Miley continued. 

Last year, Jackson had a full-on water system crisis. 

Residents in Jackson, and neighboring Byram, were forced to drink bottled water and flush their toilets with non-potable water. 

Jackson's Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba declined a Scripps News interview request, but is reportedly considering Byram's offer.

SEE MORE: Justice Department Intervenes For Struggling Mississippi Water System

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Mississippi state legislature is considering measures that would add appointed judges to those already elected and expand patrols by Capitol police inside Jackson, which is governed by Democrats and has the highest percentage of Black residents of any major U.S. city. 

Democratic Representative Earle Banks represents Hinds County.

"Jackson has had a recent crime problem. We've seen an upsurge in crime and this legislature wants to do something to help the capital city of Jackson," Banks said. 

Representative Banks is the only Black lawmaker serving on a legislative committee trying to come up with a plan in the wake of the city's crime wave. 

At issue is not just Jackson losing the authority to control itself — there is a fear among Black residents that Capitol police won't be held accountable if they mistreat people. 

"Well, the people I hear from — constituents, lawyers, doctors, other people — are saying they want more police presence and protection in the city of Jackson," Banks said. 

Last month, black activists in Mississippi gathered on the steps of the capitol building to decry the legislative efforts affecting Jackson as a "ruthlessly racist" political power grab. 

But in Byram, which is 65% Black, the mayor doesn't see it that way. 

Mayor White, who served in the state senate for 18 years, says Jackson just isn't working. Meanwhile, the federal government has appointed an expert from Virginia, Ted Henefin, to manage the water department for a year, with 13 projects planned to stabilize the dilapidated system.

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