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Delta Defender

Stopping developers with an "African drumbeat"

by Janisse Ray

Rose Johnson doesn’t smile much for pictures. "What is there to smile about?" she asks me. "My cousin was lynched? The creek is full of creosote? Mrs. Eva Skinner’s son’s grave has been paved over?"

Johnson has brought me to an African-American graveyard on the banks of Turkey Creek, near the blue-collar town of Gulfport, Mississippi. The cemetery was bulldozed in 2001 to make way for an apartment complex, and only a handful of graves are left, some marked, enclosed by a chain-link fence. The gate is padlocked.

"When Mrs. Skinner saw this, she just cried and cried," says Johnson, who is 60. Dark-brown eyes flash in a fiercely beautiful face. "Her baby is over there under that apartment."

Two to three hundred people were buried in the historic cemetery, Johnson says, mostly in graves left unmarked because the families could not afford tombstones. "How can those people rest in peace with an apartment building over them? What is wrong with this city? Somebody’s got to stop these fools."

Johnson, chair of the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club, does not suffer fools easily. She lives in North Gulfport, a neglected, low-income, African-American neighborhood squeezed between Interstate 10 and the flashy casinos that offer a chance at quick riches a few miles south.

The residents of North Gulfport are no strangers to hardship, and Johnson does what she can to serve them: She writes letters to parole boards on behalf of people imprisoned too long, lost in the criminal justice system. By visiting local high schools she has registered over a thousand 18-year-olds to vote. She takes care of the elderly and shut-in. She co-chairs the Gulfport Concerned Citizens Coalition; this past New Year’s she helped get another crack house closed down.

But over the years, Johnson has become increasingly concerned with environmental issues in a widening arc around her home. From the fouling and proposed destruction of Turkey Creek—a 13-mile stream where she was baptized as a child—to attempts to build toxic-waste landfills and nuclear plants in neighboring towns, Johnson has been battling those who continually assault her community.

Mississippi has a higher percentage of African-American citizens than any other state; the greater Gulfport area is 34 percent black. "Most of the worst environmental threats affect African-American communities," says Becky Gillette, conservation chair of the Mississippi Sierra Club. Gillette’s observation is borne out by a 1983 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office, which found that three out of four "off-site" hazardous-waste landfills in the South were located in predominantly black communities. "A bunch of white people can’t go into those communities and be effective at organizing opposition," says Gillette. "It has to come from within."

Most of Johnson’s work can be labeled "environmental justice," which calls for the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and income levels in environmental decisions. And yet her efforts are also personal: She is defending and protecting her home, her neighbors, her culture, and her heritage.

On a cold January Saturday I drive south through the Mississippi Delta to visit Johnson. Vast fields lie fallow for winter; an occasional cotton stalk offers its ragged strands of white fluff. In the coastal plain I begin to see hand-lettered signs advertising Gulf shrimp, crawfish, boiled peanuts. A Confederate flag, big as a billboard, billows above a store selling Dixie memorabilia.

Johnson was born next door to the pretty coral-and-white cinder-block house where she now lives, on a street where uncovered ditches, raw sewage leaks, and lack of sidewalks are minor concerns compared with crack houses. Because Gulfport is located in a flood zone—African Americans were historically relegated to not-so-desirable parts of town—and because rapid urbanization has hindered processes of water absorption, in heavy rains the ditches and streets flood.

Johnson holds the front door wide, full of welcome, wearing a light-gray sweatsuit with sneakers. Inside, her modest home is elegant, with a large stone bowl on a glass-topped coffee table, an urn or two placed about, and richly covered cushions on the sofa. A bronze statue of a great blue heron stands by the white-painted fireplace.

Johnson excuses herself and returns with a flapping pile of newspaper clippings about her environmental efforts. "Here’s the person who doesn’t like to talk about herself," she jokes.

For 22 years Johnson worked for the highway patrol as a dispatcher, where in 1995 she filed a discrimination suit when a white male with lesser credentials was made her supervisor. She won the case. She raised four children as a single parent (the oldest was 12 when she got separated), and cared for a brother with Down syndrome for 13 years, until he passed in 1999. Johnson was always busy. But in 1998, she took medical retirement following a back injury. Her children grown, she says, "I had time on my hands."

One morning, out walking, a friend pointed to the yard of a pallet company that Johnson had seen a thousand times but had never really paid attention to. "Look at that unsightly mess," her friend said. Wooden pallets were heaped 20 feet high in rickety, leaning stacks, right up to the street. At night the company burned the broken ones.

"I decided I had to do something about it," Johnson says. "It took from 1999 to 2003 to get that eyesore removed."

The fight to clean up an ugly patch of land helped Johnson tune in to a pattern of neglect. "I saw so much work that needed to be done," she says. "So many horrific things have been done to this community. Politicians just weren’t helping us. I prayed over it and empowered myself to get out and do what was needed.

"We’re fighting for our God-given right to have clean water, clean air, good schools, good homes," she says. "I want to make a difference in my community, to make it a healthier and cleaner place to live. And not just for my community, but for all minorities and poor people.

"My parents were good, Christian, hardworking people," Johnson continues. "They taught me that if you are right, you stand up for what you believe. They did that, as far as they could. The opportunity has come open for me to take it a little bit further."

The struggle over Turkey Creek began in 2000, when developer T. J. "Butch" Ward, a Republican politician from Louisiana, used his enviable connections to get three U.S. senators—Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and John Breaux (D-La.)—to pressure regulatory officials from the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to approve a permit for him. Ward wanted to fill 500 acres of wetlands in the Turkey Creek drainage in order to build a mixed-use commercial development, including an office complex and distribution center.

"When I was a girl, all we knew was this neighborhood," Johnson says. "The beaches were ‘whites only.’ So Turkey Creek is where we went to fish, pick blackberries, recreate. Oftentimes you could see old people walking down to Turkey Creek with their cane poles in their hands. Churches had no pools inside for baptisms then—we all walked down to the creek and waited until the crowd got there."

Johnson’s father, who had a fourth-grade education, worked all his life at a creosote plant operating on the banks of the creek. He took the little bit of money he made to feed his family and buy a piece of land. "By the time he retired," Johnson says, "his lungs were completely eroded, eaten up. He just made 70."

When development started to sprawl northward from the casinos along the coastline, turning North Gulfport from rural to urban, Johnson noticed that the creek’s water turned colors and got dirty. People dumped old tires and garbage in it. Though the creosote plant shut down 20-some years ago, its toxic soil was being treated on-site, and, according to Johnson, you can still smell and see creosote in the water. Fecal coliform levels were high from leaking septic tanks and from sewage piped directly into the creek.

On the afternoon I first phoned Johnson to set up a meeting, the conversation had been interrupted by her grown daughter, who ran breathlessly into Johnson’s home. "There’s a man fishing in Turkey Creek," she said. Johnson had begged pardon, saying, "I’ve got to tell this man that Turkey Creek is so polluted he can’t eat the fish," before she hung up.

Johnson heard about the proposed Ward development from state senator Deborah Dawkins, a former Mississippi Sierra Club Chapter chair considered the most pro-environment legislator in the state. Dawkins had become aware of Johnson’s work and introduced her to the Sierra Club.

By this time, only a week remained in the comment period for the proposal. "We are left out of the process," Johnson says. "Developments get built before we even know about it. But it’s our ditches and streets that flood." Johnson immediately hit the pavement. In 48 hours she collected 526 signatures on a Sierra Club petition opposing the development, as well as 60 letters—"a relatively high number" of comments, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Residents of North Gulfport depend on wetlands to mitigate flooding. Even without the Ward development, following torrential rains Turkey Creek swells over its wooded banks, rushing into churches and homes, causing septic tanks to overflow. A watermark can be seen two feet up the side of Forrest Heights Baptist Church, a few hundred feet from the creek. Development aggravates the problems, since buildings and impervious surfaces like concrete impede water from percolating into the soil.

"I had to explain what wetlands are," says Johnson. "We call them swamps. But wetlands are natural sponges, and we need them to absorb water, to filter pollutants."

The Sierra Club brought in an engineering firm to analyze Ward’s proposal. "Their study supported our fears," says Johnson. The report confirmed that flooding in the area would increase, and that the developer’s analysis was inaccurate and inappropriate for a project of this scale. The study verified the likelihood that inadequately treated storm water would cause an increase in creek pollution.

Public outcry prompted Ward to redraw his plans a few times, but never without the loss of wetlands, which was unacceptable to the community. The white mayor of Gulfport, Ken Combs, was overtly critical of North Gulfport’s resistance to the development. In a meeting in April 2003 with the city’s daily newspaper, referring to the project opposition, he said, "We’re dealing with some dumb bastards." He added, "I’m not running for reelection so I guess I can say that. None of these people voted for me anyway." The councilor representing the area called for his resignation, as did the NAACP.

In May, as the controversy grew more heated, the Sierra Club helped distribute yard signs throughout North Gulfport that read, "We can clean up Mississippi’s air and water." Within a few days, the mayor sent out code-enforcement officials who removed the signs, purportedly because the placards blocked highway vision. Local activists charged that the city was selectively enforcing its codes, and eventually the signs were returned.

Finally, on December 16, 2003, after three years of well-organized opposition, Butch Ward withdrew his permit application for the development. "I thought it was the best Christmas present that ever was," says Johnson.

According to Gillette, the proposed development was a blessing in disguise. "The whole community is much more informed and involved," she says. At the first public meetings that Johnson attended, only a few people came out. Now, between 200 and 300 sometimes turn up at public hearings.

Part of Johnson’s doggedness comes from her mother, who didn’t allow herself to be cheated: If she was shortchanged at a store by even two pennies, she refused to leave. "She would stand sometimes hours to get her correct change back. We would stay there and wait."

Johnson quips that she has what she calls a "Massa Plan." The African-American communities of Gulfport want Turkey Creek’s watershed preserved and protected so as not to lose its natural functions. They want the water cleaned up. They want a walking path along it. They want access improved. They want sustainable development using strict guidelines. They want historic structures in the watershed restored. They want to be heard.

As the community’s political and environmental savvy has increased, it has begun to take on some of the area’s big polluters. In 2000, government data showed that toxic pollution was decreasing around the country. In Mississippi, however, total emissions increased by 7 million pounds in a single year. When Johnson and the Sierra Club found that Mississippi Power Company owned two of the most polluting facilities, coal-fired power plants located on the Gulf Coast, they decided to intervene in a proposed rate increase, asking that the company install modern pollution-control technology at its plants.

"Don’t mess with them," people told Johnson. "They’ll cut off your lights."

Johnson’s response? "I have a right to fight for what we deserve." So far, the power company has not cleaned up emissions.

When DuPont’s nearby DeLisle plant, which makes titanium dioxide, recently filed for a permit to build a second disposal pit for its toxic wastes, Johnson and the Sierra Club again went to bat for local residents. Community members fear the waste is linked to high rates of illness, including cancer and neurological problems, such as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. "We are going to stand with the people," Johnson says.

When Entergy proposed construction of a nuclear plant at nearby Port Gibson early this year, Johnson fired off a statement: Once again in Mississippi, low-income African Americans are being placed at the greatest risk of harm so a greedy corporation can make big profits. Would Entergy be trying to build the first new nuclear plant in decades in the U.S. in predominantly white Madison or Ridgeland? No. Just like you don’t have hog factories, creosote waste sites, and chemical plants located next to these affluent white communities. This is another example of environmental racism in a state where African Americans are already bearing the brunt of the pollution burden.

Late one afternoon Johnson takes me around her neighborhood, showing me Martin Grocery, where she used to run for a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk before drug dealers began to stand on its corner. She shows me where she pressed the company to stop burning wood pallets and to clean up its grounds. She drives past her neighbors’ simple, often brightly painted, sometimes decrepit houses: "That’s where Mrs. Skinner lives. That’s where Mrs. Smith’s property floods." She points out the fish market, the police station, the vegetable stand where oranges and turnips are heaped in colorful piles. She shows me where raw sewage leaked near the senior citizen center. She shows me where the man was fishing when I called—"Hot grease will kill anything," he had said; Johnson had to explain that mercury is an element and can’t be destroyed by heat. We find some of the yard signs proclaiming that Mississippi’s air and water can be cleaned up.

We end our tour at the "Turkey Creek community," another African-American neighborhood in North Gulfport, founded by emancipated slaves soon after the Civil War. We stop at the home of Derrick Evans, a handsome young historian who left a teaching job in Boston to return to his native Turkey Creek. Evans is in the process of restoring a family home, which had begun to slope, rot, and leak. The rooms, for now, are unheated and almost empty, except for a huge map of the creek watershed and historical photographs on the walls. The wash shed, where his great-grandmother took in laundry, is half-fallen.

Evans is working at his computer on a calendar that portrays the community in old photographs and stories. He has a story of his own.

"The more often I came home, the more trees were gone. It was like my childhood was being eviscerated. There was another OfficeMax or Wal-Mart. ‘This is not my home,’ I said. I felt in my heart the loss of Turkey Creek. But I think a more dangerous issue is the displacement of our culture." Johnson and others succeeded in getting Turkey Creek named one of the Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in Mississippi, and had one of its buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Johnson is effective because she uses something she calls the African drumbeat. She talks. "Whenever I stop, I’m talking to people. I organize by talking on the phone, on the streets." She considers her greatest resource the church. "You take so many petitions. The church secretary makes the announcement. People sign."

Of all the time I spent with Johnson, one moment stands out. We are looking at the damage done by Gulfport’s clearcutting along Turkey Creek. The winter sun is magnificent and strong, pouring across our heads and shoulders. The creek lazes along. Suddenly Johnson quotes Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Johnson is a believer—in the possibility of change and in the power of her African-American culture. "We tilled the earth as slaves," she says. "We helped build this country. We have to take back what will strengthen and rebuild our communities."


Janisse Ray, a native of Georgia, is author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and Wild Card Quilt (Milkweed Editions, 2000 and 2003).

 

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