Tag Archives: civil rights

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

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.”


Voter Registration Periods are Over, Now’s the Time for GOTV

New Orleans       Georgia is scaring the Republicans.  Barriers to voter registration dropped over the last two years as the result of lawsuits and legislative action that made registration and renewal more accessible through automatic procedures that allow a voter to opt out of registering, but otherwise enfranchise them.  The results have been significant.

Reporting in the Wall Street Journal indicated that the change “helped fuel a 15% increase in Georgia’s active voter rolls to about 6.3 million in September from about 5.5 million in November 2016.  Black registered voters rose 15%, Hispanic voters 40%, and Asian and Pacific Islander voters rose 36%.  The number of women who are registered to vote increased 13% in the period and white registered voters went up by about 10%.”  All of that seems like good news, except for one simple fact, which the Republicans have understood very well for years.  Once you reduce the barriers, more potential voters are enfranchised.  Given demographic changes in Georgia and the growth of minority populations that means that more of this enlarged pool tends to favor Democratic candidates.  Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have voter registration laws that roughly align with Georgia’s.  All of which is why Republicans in many states attempt to suppress the vote.

Leveling the playing field so that it balances evenly with democratic governance based on voter accountability is a good thing for everyone, regardless of the partisan politics that tries to tilt towards authoritarianism.  Registration alone just signs up all of the players.  It doesn’t put them into the game.  An Oregon political scientist found that despite the 5% increase in that state’s registration, the “turnout effects were relatively modest” with about 30% of the new registrants voting.  New registrants who enroll after aggressive outreach and registration campaigns tend to vote in higher percentages than the rest of the population, but the Oregon figures seem to indicate that default auto-registrants are less motivated, so their participation would more likely be triggered by the campaign.

Voter registration periods for the mid-terms in many states like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana for example are now over, so the real push now has to be to get people out to vote.  Community radio stations are being encouraged to run GOTV public service announcements in regular rotation to keep the election date and the importance of voting in front of citizens.  For the next month this needs to be a constant push.

How could that be a bad thing?  Let’s get it done!