Civil rights activist Unita Blackwell has had a fascinating life at the intersection of local politics and national and international affairs dealing with race and poverty as well as a perhaps surprising degree of celebrity. Born in Lula in Coahoma County in 1933, Unita Brown started working in the cotton fields when she was six. She married Jeremiah Blackwell when she was nineteen, and the young couple moved into a small, tin-roofed shotgun house in Mayersville, Issaquena County.
Not well educated, Blackwell said she “went back to school” in 1964 when local resident Henry Sias introduced her to Robert Moses and she began working with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists. Her activism began when she saw her son, Jeremiah Jr., going to the same sort of poor school she had attended and said, “No, not again.” On behalf of her son she helped file a 1965 lawsuit to desegregate the Rolling Fork schools, later recalling, “I wanted my child to have decent books. Now that I think back, I wasn’t so interested in going to school with white people. I just wanted my son, all black children, to get a good education.” She was on the original board of directors of the Child Development Group of Mississippi and worked with the Mississippi Action for Community Education.
Blackwell was part of the small group of African Americans in Mayersville who tried to register to vote. After being rebuffed she worked for voting rights in the Delta, went to Atlantic City as part of the contingent of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party activists at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and returned home to become involved in and sometimes even to create local politics, though at first she “had to learn what a board of supervisors was, what a precinct was.” She estimates she has been arrested about seventy times, and she participated in the 1966 sit-in at the Greenville Air Force Base.
Blackwell became part of the first generation of black Mississippians since Reconstruction to hold political office. Mayersville, with a population of under four hundred, was unincorporated before Blackwell saw that incorporation would help in applying for government grants. In 1976, after she and others arranged the town’s incorporation, she was elected the mayor, the first African American female to hold that office in Mississippi. During her tenure, she undertook programs to build a sewer system, pave streets, and use the resources of the federal government and private groups such as the Ford Foundation to improve housing for poor residents. The town’s public housing project for the elderly is called Unita Blackwell Estates.
She served as mayor until 1993, when she did not run for reelection, instead running for the US congressional seat ultimately won by Mike Espy. She ran again for mayor in 1997, winning by three votes; her 2001 reelection bid failed by nine votes.
Blackwell has traveled widely, visiting China more than a dozen times as part of various projects, most of them involving the training of mayors in poor and rural communities. From 1967 to 1975 she served as housing coordinator for the National Council of Negro Women. She traveled as a delegate to the International Women’s Year Conference in Houston in 1977 and to numerous Democratic National Conventions. In addition, she served on the board or as an officer of the World Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of Black Mayors (a group that made her its first female president in 1990) as well as on advisory councils for women and children.
Without a college degree, Blackwell was admitted into the graduate program in regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and received her master’s degree in 1983. Nine years later she received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius” award for her work in community organizing.
Popular with journalists and on lecture circuits, Blackwell has emerged as an inspiration to many people. In 2006 she authored a memoir, Barefootin’: Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom, with JoAnne Prichard Morris. That memoir concentrates on Blackwell’s early life and activist years, family life, religious perspective, and work to fight poverty, violence, and injustice. She began the book with her first effort to register to vote, referred to her involvement as “growing up all over again,” and ended with encouragement to all people to understand that “your spirit is in your feet, and your feet can run free.”
- Unita Blackwell File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Unita Blackwell, with JoAnne Prichard Morris, Barefootin’: Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom (2006)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1995)