Residents of Mississippi’s capital endured weeks this winter without clean running water. A combination of bad weather and failed infrastructure meant thousands of people in the mostly Black city of Jackson spent weeks without the essential resource in February and early March. Residents had to rely on donated water for everyday tasks. While it seems like Jackson’s immediate water crisis is getting resolved, many Black communities in the rural South and elsewhere struggle to get access to clean water every day. It’s a complicated problem that doesn’t get the same national attention as other racial justice priorities.
On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Catherine Coleman Flowers, who is working to change that. She’s the author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret and a winner of a 2020 MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Jason Johnson: What are some of the issues with infrastructure, communication, and government that led to this happening in Jackson, Mississippi, which is actually a state capital?
Catherine Coleman Flowers: What’s happening in Jackson is not unusual. I believe that what we will find in a lot of these areas, especially in the South, is the type of benign neglect of these cities. Benign neglect means there’s an intentional avoidance of putting the type of dollars in infrastructure—in these Southern communities, it’s not coming from the tax base because the tax base is not there. A lot of it comes from the federal government, but it’s those cities that have lobbyists or political connections that get the money over and over again. We have to change that paradigm.
One of the things that I’ve read about Jackson was the mayor was quoted and he talks about how brittle the pipes were. The infrastructure that was probably put in Jackson was put in there when Jackson was white predominantly. It probably has not been replaced, and the local community cannot afford to replace it. But we have to do something about this because Jackson’s not the only one. It’s like with Flint and the lead problem. Flint was just the canary in the coal mine. There’s lead issues throughout the United States that have not been addressed. And likewise, there are infrastructure water issues throughout the United States. When you look at Jackson, Jackson was also the convergence of poor infrastructure and climate change. We’re going to see more climate events, but these extreme weather patterns are going to expose, like COVID did, all of these disparities as it relates to infrastructure issues.
Have you seen climate change make clean water access even harder for rural Black communities?
Yes, in California, Allensworth in the Central Valley, because of the water being used by the farming industry there. There’s a Black community that historically was the first Black community in California funded by Black folk, and now, they can’t drink the water because the water is full of arsenic that’s naturally forming. The parts of the arsenic is greater than the parts of the water, so therefore, they can’t drink it.
So when it comes to this kind of activism, we always hear about famous white women. They get movies. We have Silkwood. We’ve got Erin Brockovich. But we don’t hear often about the Black women who are on the ground doing this kind of work. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, what you saw in Lowndes County, Alabama, and how your activism began on environmental justice issues?
Well, my activism began on environmental justice issues because I came from activist parents. When I moved back to Lowndes County in 2000, I ran into the fact that there were Black people that were being arrested because they could not afford an on-site septic system. A lot of the people that are in rural communities are not in incorporated areas. All the laws are written to support municipalities, but in a rural community, generally, there’s no wastewater treatment, no decentralized system. I live in Montgomery, Alabama, and we have a decentralized system, and all I had to do when I bought a house was just move into the house and pay to have my water turned on. Or if I was building a house in Montgomery, it would just connect to the decentralized system.
However, in rural communities like Lowndes County, the homeowner is responsible for their own decentralized system. These systems in Lowndes County are very, very expensive, especially if you’re a poor family. To give you an example, last year we were trying to work with a family prior to COVID to get a septic system for them. They built down 25 inches, in this case, and struck water. The system that she would have needed would have cost $28,000. You don’t go to the bank and borrow that. Even if it’s $6,000 for a septic system, there’s no financing for it. A mobile home can come with the plumbing, the indoor plumbing, the toilets. You can connect it to a straight pipe or PVC pipe and have it protruding from the home. When they flush the toilet, it goes out on top of the ground. That’s one of the things, and they have criminalized that here in the state of Alabama and in a lot of states. Then the second problem is people that have septic systems that have failed. When they fail, they can also be criminalized for that. I got involved back in 2002. I had gone to visit a husband and wife who had been arrested because they had a failing septic system. And then later, we found out that there were lots of people in the county that either had already been arrested or were facing arrest because they did not have a working septic system. So I got involved by stopping the criminalization, at least in Lowndes County, of poor people who could not afford on-site sanitation.
It would seem to me also that this is a structural issue. Because as Black folk were segregated or kept out of certain neighborhoods in certain places in the South, they weren’t able to live in places that were incorporated that had plumbing systems. So you’re not only being punished through white supremacy and segregation forcing you out, but you’re then being fined and criminalized again when you have to provide resources for yourself that other people are getting through tax money.
Yes, Montgomery at one point was one of the top slave trading places in this country. That is why the lynching memorial, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, is located in Montgomery. When you walk from the river in Montgomery and walk down Commerce Street, those buildings, a lot of them, were slaveholding pens. People were auctioned off at Court Square, which is not far from the Rosa Parks Museum.
Those of us that are part of that heritage, our families ended up in places like Lowndes County. When I go back and look at the census records, I see that our families have been there since the early 1800s, in some cases. So these rural communities, there’s a legacy and traditions where there are churches and schools and graveyards where people have been there forever. But when infrastructure came in, I think there was neglect of these communities, and the communities that were left out were those communities of color. That is a major problem that we see in the South around infrastructure and environmental justice.
Catherine, you’ve worked with Democrats and Republicans. I mean, on all sides. You’ve worked with Bernie Sanders. You worked with [former Alabama Senator] Jeff Sessions, who’s the last person on the planet who I would ever think would care anything about the struggles of rural Black people. I got to ask you, when you’re dealing with these powerful political leaders in and out of office, when they come to you and say, “What can I do to help?,” what’s the first thing that you tell them?
With Jeff Sessions, the way it happened, I just happened to be at a town hall meeting. I was the economic development coordinator for the county. He was a U.S. senator, and he talked about the type of grants that were available. And then I asked the question, “You mentioned these grants, but how do poor communities get access to them if they have to pay a match?” He came to me afterward and said, “I’ve always wanted to know the answer to that. I’m from Wilcox County, Alabama. I grew up poor. We didn’t have a television in our house until I was 10 years of age.” That’s how we started our conversation. We had to be human first. And from that point, he was very helpful. Hyundai had decided it was going to locate in Alabama, in Montgomery. At that time, when they decided to locate there, the state officials weren’t taking them to Lowndes County at all. When they had the groundbreaking ceremony, everybody was from Eastern Alabama, and there was nobody with a shovel that was Black. All the Black people kind of huddled together and everybody was saying, “Lowndes County’s right over there. Why is there nobody here from Lowndes County with a shovel?” Ultimately, I was able to help recruit tier 1 suppliers to Hyundai to Lowndes County. But we needed the infrastructure. We didn’t have industrial development parks or anything like that. Sen. Sessions was very helpful in that.
In terms of Bernie Sanders, he actually came to visit Lowndes County. He went to the home of Pamela Rush, who I write about in my book. I felt that you cannot understand inequality unless you see it for yourself. So to come into her home and see how she was living in a dilapidated mobile home that she still owed money on, that did not appreciate in value—living with two children, one child sleeping on a CPAP machine—Bernie Sanders said to me, “Catherine, now I understand when you talk about the intersection of climate change and environmental justice and racial justice.” Because I told his people, “I have to plan this trip because I want to make sure it’s not going to be a photo-op. He’s going to actually go and see people and see the situation so that he can know what kind of policies we need to have in place to address this.” I didn’t have an ask other than for him to come and see. And then once he saw and he was looking at what resources or what ways he could potentially help, and it has led to a shift in government policy that I could not have even imagined when I made that request for him to come and see.