Lamar, a Black navy veteran and double-amputee who lived in Milwaukee, Wis., in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, made around $7,500 a year, well below the roughly $13,000 a year that constitutes the poverty line for a family of one.
Except Lamar isn’t a family of one—he’s a single father, and his four-figure salary supports both him and his children. After making his $550 monthly rent payment, he had about $78 left for groceries, medical expenses and clothing.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Matthew Desmond contends that Lamar’s story is not unique. Instead, it is frighteningly common, as 1.5 million Americans are evicted from their homes each year.
These tales of forced homelessness are not reserved for distant northern cities, as Mississippi had the eighth-highest rate of eviction in the United States prior to the onset of the COVID pandemic, and the capital city’s rate of eviction was even higher, with Jackson landlords evicting one out of every 13 renters in a state where rental laws are more friendly to property owners than renters.
Now, as the state starts to emerge from the 16-month darkness of the pandemic—which saw 16% of Mississippians unemployed at its peak—the eviction crisis has the potential to become even worse. The Aspen Institute estimates that 58% of Mississippi renters will be at risk of homelessness by the end of 2021.
The Margaret Walker Center is gearing up to both indict eviction practices and to advocate for change, with the institute hosting the National Building Museum’s “Evicted” exhibit, which opens Monday, June 28.
Human Rights and Human Dignity
Margaret Walker Center Director Robert Luckett says the three-month loan of the exhibit has been in the works for quite some time, though he says it is making its debut at a critical time for Mississippians on the cusp of eviction.
“The exhibit was produced in 2018, and we were approached as one of the possible sites then, but it makes (the exhibit) that much more significant in the current moment,” Luckett, a Mississippi Free Press advisory board member, says. “We obviously didn’t plan it that way, but it’s come to the forefront and has become a more salient issue for people in our community.”
These issues speak to the ethos for the Margaret Walker Center, too, which Black Renaissance writer and professor Margaret Walker originally founded as the “Institute for the Study of the History, Life and Culture of Black People” on the campus of Jackson State University in west Jackson.
“Our mission is still centered around African American history and culture as a Black studies research center, and we try to present programming that helps to address issues faced by African Americans,” Luckett notes. “In a fundamental way, the work we do is uniquely tied to civil rights and human dignity. Eviction is one piece of that larger puzzle.”
Luckett explained that the eviction threat is especially acute for Black Mississippians. The bottom line is that in Mississippi, race and class are inextricably linked,” he said. “Poverty and race are linked, and African Americans are disproportionately impacted by poverty and issues related to poverty, especially eviction.”
The numbers bear this out, as more than 32% of eviction filings nationwide target Black tenants, despite the fact that Black people comprise less than 20% of overall renters and less than 15% of the overall U.S. population. These statistics are exacerbated in Jackson, with the 80% Black capital city reporting more than seven evictions per day in 2016, the last year such data were captured.
Not Just Allies, but Activists
The “Evicted” exhibit emphasizes this disparity, drawing on Desmond’s book of the same name by using three-dimensional architectural models alongside real-life stories and infographics in order to demonstrate the starkness of the nation-wide eviction crisis to museum-goers across the country.
These physical aspects of the exhibit offer a tangible lament of the housing crisis, showing entire households’ worth of items that landlords cast out on the street. Many of the items give a human face to the multitude of evicted Americans: a stack of board games, once played by a family sitting on a curb surrounded by their mattresses; an entire wall of eviction notices, the pink-slip precursor to homelessness; a photo of a woman tearfully packing the last of her belongings while her once-landlord takes a photo of the empty end of the room to advertise the empty space now for rent.
“It’s quite a construction project. We’re literally putting roofs on houses,” Luckett says of the traveling exhibition. “It’s taking up almost our entire gallery space, and I think it’s particularly moving in that you get this sense of how big it is. It’s emotional for people, and I think folks are going to have their hands full (with the exhibit).”
Both the scope and the scale of the project will be large, as the museum has planned a slate of programs to accompany the exhibit’s 15-week residency. Luckett says the exhibit will provide “real-time resources” for people facing eviction and for activists working with the homeless community.
“Our programming will provide people with the language and tools to not just be allies but advocates and activists in their own right,” he said.
Solutions and Visibility
The Margaret Walker Center is planning to cast a wide net through this programming in order to equip visitors with the necessary resources to instigate change in their own communities. The MWC will kick off its set of in-person programming by welcoming representatives with the Springboard to Opportunities and the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, who will focus on Mississippians the 2019 ICE raids displaced.
A separate evening event on August 26 will center on issues faced in the capital city, featuring organizers with the Jackson Public Schools’ McKinney-Vento program, which assists JPS students affected by homelessness or homes in transition and the local Stewpot ministry, which provides food and temporary shelter to struggling metro-area residents.
Luckett says he is looking forward to the solutions that these partnerships and the exhibit itself will provide. “We’re the only major metropolitan area in the state, and we’re a city that’s predominantly Black and poor,” he says.
“As the state capital and as a majority-Black city, these issues touch home in ways that are incredibly visible to the rest of the state and the nation.”
Those wishing to experience the “Evicted” display at the Margaret Walker Center may tour the temporary exhibit from June 28 to October 3 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday. A full list of the center’s “Evicted”-inspired programming is available here.