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Is Flint water crisis a civil rights issue? Jesse Jackson calls for action.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson compared Flint, Mich., water crisis to the 1960s civil rights movement cities of Selma and Montgomery, Ala., and called for action by its citizens.

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader (center l.), stands beside Flint Bishop Neal Roberson as they advocate for federal assistance and residents' needs through the ongoing Flint water crisis at Heavenly Host Full Gospel Baptist Church, Sunday, in Flint, Mich. The water became contaminated after Flint switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River as a cost-cutting move.

Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com/AP

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From a church rally in Flint, Mich., the Rev. Jesse Jackson called the city a "disaster zone" and asserted that lead-contaminated drinking water is a civil rights issue.

A day after President Obama declared a federal emergency, and routed aid for response efforts, Mr. Jackson compared Flint to the origin cities of the 1960s civil rights movement, Selma and Montgomery, Ala., and called for action by its citizens.

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"This is the time for us to make a bigger statement than we have made in a long time," Jackson said. "You can never tell when the spirit will strike and then it's time for everyone to move."

Flint is 57 percent black, and from 2009 to 2013 some 42 percent of its residents lived below the poverty line, according to US census data. 

Flint, a city of just under 100,000 residents, about 60 miles northwest of Detroit, was under control of a governor-appointed emergency manager when its tap water source was changed from Detroit's system to the nearby Flint River in April 2014 as a cost-saving measure.

Last October, the city returned to Detroit's water supply after tests found elevated levels of lead in the water and in the blood of some children. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said the city had not been "forced" to treat the water with corrosion controls, causing outdated lead connections to leech, The Detroit News reports.

“We should have ... tape around the city because Flint is a crime scene,” Jackson said Sunday to a full house at Heavenly Host Baptist Church in Flint. “The people of Flint have been betrayed.”

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who declared a state of emergency on Jan. 5, has apologized for the state's handling of the crisis as public support for his resignation grows.

Two investigations have been launched. The Michigan attorney general said his office would investigate whether any laws were violated in Flint related to the crisis, as will the US Attorney in Detroit. Community activist Quincy Murphy, who filed a petition to recall Snyder, said in an interview with The Detroit News that "it’s a slap in the face" for residents to get billed for contaminated water.

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“They need to stop charging us for water we cannot drink,” he said. “We need our money back.

This report contains material from Reuters.