Unita Blackwell’s Life and Work is a Beacon for Us All

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans       At the end of every year, there’s a section in the New York Times about the “lives they lived” that looks at people large and small that died during the past year.  Unita Blackwell a civil rights warrior from Mississippi, born in 1933, died in 2019, was one of them worth remembering for her courage and conviction in fighting for civil rights.  Here’s what Maggie Jones wrote about here:

On an afternoon thick with Mississippi heat, Unita Blackwell sat on the front porch of her shotgun house with her friend Coreen, drinking homemade beer, waiting for something to happen. That’s when she saw them: two men — they looked to be about 19 — heading toward town. Blackwell knew they weren’t from around there. They walked too fast. No one walked fast in Mayersville on 90-degree days. They said, “Hello,” instead of the usual, “How y’all feeling?”

“That’s them,” Blackwell said.

It was June 1964, and Unita Blackwell was 31, with an eighth-grade education, no heat or running water and a hunger for change. She had been born into the brutality of the plantation, in a sharecropper’s shack in the middle of a cotton field. As a toddler, she rode on the eight-foot-long sack filled with cotton that was tied to her mother’s back. By age 6, Unita was working the fields herself, six days a week when she wasn’t in school.

She had heard that college students from the North had been coming to Mississippi to help black people register to vote. She thought they might never find their way to tiny, neglected Issaquena County, deep in the Delta.

That afternoon on the porch, Coreen warned Blackwell that she might be killed if she got involved with those people. They were Freedom Summer activists, and three of them, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, disappeared that month. By summer’s end in Mississippi, six murders were tied to civil rights efforts in 1964, along with 35 shootings, 80 beatings and some 1,000 arrests.

No matter, Blackwell told Coreen that day. “I’m dying anyway,”

Before the summer of 1964, Blackwell hadn’t thought much about voting. No one had ever told her she could vote. But then those two black students, Bob Wright, from Virginia, and Louis Grant, from New York, showed up at Moon Lake Missionary Baptist Church the morning after Blackwell first saw them. Wright told the congregants that voting could help put food on the table, get them better houses, improve their kids’ education. The next week at church, Wright asked for volunteers to register at the courthouse. People squirmed and fidgeted in their seats. Blackwell started to stand up, when her husband, Jeremiah, tugged on her dress. They would stand up together.

While Blackwell, Jeremiah and six others waited to enter the courthouse to register, white men in pickup trucks, their rifles on display, circled. Even though she and her husband were not allowed into the courthouse that day, they were fired from their plantation jobs. When she finally did get in, the clerk told her to copy the Mississippi Constitution and then write an interpretation of the corporate tax code — which she did. Her registration was denied.

Stokely Carmichael, a local project director for S.N.C.C., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized many of the volunteers, heard about Blackwell and hired her. She began scouting for people who were willing to provide food, lodging and financial help to volunteers, as well as to those who lost their jobs and their housing after trying to register. She identified leaders on plantations and held meetings in churches and restaurants. Some black preachers wouldn’t let her inside their churches, following plantation owners’ orders. “Let the Lord fix it,” one minister told her. But in other churches, she and Fannie Lou Hamer, who became her close friend, rallied crowds. “The Lord wants us to register,” Blackwell told them. Together she and Hamer got people singing and clapping and promising to register the next morning.

By July, Blackwell was working with Hamer and others on the black-led Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the state’s all-white, segregationist Democratic Party. Blackwell was elected to the executive committee of the M.F.D.P., and in August, she traveled to Atlantic City as part of the delegation to the Democratic National Convention.

She paid, though, for her bravery and for her blackness. For years, she, Jeremiah and friends slept in shifts to guard against attacks: The Ku Klux Klan and others threw Molotov cocktails in her yard and planted burning crosses. By her count, she was arrested dozens of times (at one point, every day for 30 days) — for parking one inch beyond her own yard, for driving 55 in a 60-miles-per-hour zone, for not having her headlights on in the middle of the day. During a march in Jackson, Miss., in 1965, the police arrested her and hundreds of others and detained them in livestock barns. They sprayed the women with disinfectant, strip-searched and assaulted them, forced them to sleep on concrete floors. They had no change of clothes, no blankets. The police said they could go home if they identified the leaders. The days stretched to a week and then almost two. Every day, Blackwell, a leader of the march, sat on an overturned garbage can in the bathroom, where guards couldn’t hear, and met with women, comforting them and encouraging them to hold on. (The women were eventually released after the National Council of Black Churches posted $50,000 bail.)

That same year, after about 300 students were suspended from Henry Weathers High School for wearing S.N.C.C. freedom pins, Blackwell spearheaded a lawsuit against the county’s board of education. Her son, Jeremiah Jr., a second grader who also wore the pin, was the lead plaintiff in the case, which claimed the board was violating students’ free-speech rights and running segregated schools, more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education. The judge ruled against the students’ right to wear pins, but he ordered the desegregation of the county’s schools. Blackwell went on to file lawsuits against almost every agency and operation run by white people in the state, as she put it, sometimes with her friend Marian Wright (later Marian Wright Edelman), a young lawyer at the N.A.A.C.P.

Then, in 1976, after most Freedom Summer workers had long moved on, Blackwell became the first black female mayor in the state, a post she held for more than 20 years. Overlooked, deeply impoverished Mayersville, with fewer than 400 residents, finally had public water and sewer systems. The streets were paved and named. The town got its first fire truck. She wrangled federal funding for 20 apartments for the elderly and people with disabilities, some of whom got indoor plumbing for the first time in their lives. It was 1988.

Blackwell lived most of the rest of her days in Mayersville. It was home. It was also where her life took a radical turn one summer day in 1964. “It was like a big drenching rain had finally come after a long dry spell,” she wrote in her memoir. “I just ran out in it and soaked it up.”