Jesse Jackson: Rolling Fork needs to be built back better—not simply rebuilt

by Jesse Jackson Sr.

(—Rolling Fork, Mississippi, has been virtually erased by a tornado hurling winds of up to 200 miles per hour. “It’s bad out here,” Jourdan Hartshorn told ABC News, “It’s literally devastation, Ground Zero.” Twenty-five people were killed in Mississippi and one in nearby Alabama. More storms are forecast for the coming days.

The scope and swiftness of the destruction was unprecedented. Residents only got a 20-minute warning, if that. The tornado was nearly a mile wide, and carved a path of nearly 60 miles on the ground. Houses and gas stations were swept away. Power lines down. People are wandering the streets in shock. 

The population of Rolling Fork is virtually all Black. Mississippi is the poorest state in the union and Rolling Fork is one of the poorer towns in Mississippi. Now, many small farmers and small business people, workers and retirees have lost virtually everything.

Crisis triggers response. First-responders came to save those they could and care for the wounded. Police, fire, and rescue squads from the area rushed in immediately. Volunteers from churches and across the community helped those who were hit. Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency. President Biden mobilized the federal response. Once more the Federal Emergency Management Agency was deployed to supply water, food, medicine and emergency shelter.

The governor and mayor vowed to rebuild. But Rolling Fork needs to be built back better—not simply rebuilt. The trailers that many lived in were no match for the winds. The poverty that afflicted too many left them even more vulnerable in the wake of the storm.

One thing that we must know: more storms are coming, and they will be more destructive. No one storm can be attributed directly to catastrophic climate change. But this storm was virtually unprecedented in its ferocity. And the southern states have experienced 236 tornadoes in March, a number not seen since the early 1950s. Extreme weather is not a future threat. It is a present danger, as Rolling Fork can testify. If we don’t take immediate and radical action to address climate change, then Rolling Fork will be repeated—rom fires or floods or droughts or hurricanes or cyclones and more—across the country – and across the globe. We reap what we sow, and we have sown the furies.

 These are people who have suffered a history of great pain. From slavery to a violent repression of freedom after the Civil War to enforced apartheid, Mississippi’s Blacks still to this day struggle for equality. Ronald Reagan began his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the torture and murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its fight for recognition was a dramatic step in the Black struggle for political rights. No small number of Blacks came to Chicago and other northern cities in the Great Migration, seeking a better deal in the North. And now they are victims of a calamity, one of far too many that are threatening lives across this country.

In Chicago, we will organize volunteer efforts to aid those displaced by the storm. Benny Goodman, the US congressman from the Delta and the only Democrat on the Mississippi delegation, will lead the effort to drive federal assistance. While we help those in immediate distress, we must do far more to address the roots of the calamity – from poverty to extreme weather. The great bluesman Muddy Waters, who came out of Rolling Fork, once sang:

Have you ever been walking, walking down that old lonesome road?

Have you ever been walking, walking down that old lonesome road?

No place to go, whee well brown no place to room and board

Things look so lonesome, when you ain’t got a shelter over your head

Things look so lonesome, when you ain’t got a shelter over your head

When you could have been at home, whee well boy sleepin’ in a feather bed.

Let us show the generosity—and the wisdom—to ensure that even in Mississippi, there is shelter over their heads.


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