/Unita Blackwell, civil rights pillar and first black woman mayor in Mississippi, dies at 86

Unita Blackwell, civil rights pillar and first black woman mayor in Mississippi, dies at 86

Jeremiah Blackwell Jr., her son, told Mississippi Today that his mother passed away Monday morning in Biloxi. He had been fighting with dementia for many years. Blackwell was a key pillar of the South’s civil rights movement. Blackwell was a field secretary and project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which helped organize voter drives in Mississippi for African Americans. She said that she was convicted of trying to register black Mississippians for the vote. In a 1977 interview with the University of Southern Mississippi, Blackwell stated that she was forced into the situation of having to learn how to survive by being black and living in the country. “But also being in this country, I learn a great lesson… This is how to overcome… It’s that power to move within the midst of opposition.” She served as an advisor to Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton during her lifetime. Blackwell was born in Lula, Mississippi in 1933 to a sharecropping family. She moved to Arkansas as a youngster to attend school in West Helena. Mississippi Delta black children were not allowed to regularly attend school. She married when she was a teenager and moved to Florida where she worked odd jobs and in fields. In 1962, her family returned to Mississippi and settled in Mayersville, Issaquena County. This was during important years of the civil rights movement. “Mississippi people want to know why are we still here and why we stay here,” Blackwell said. In a 1986 interview, Blackwell stated that Mississippi was his home. It’s where I was raised and born. We are very attached to the land. It was, it was the means of hard work. But it made us angry, happy, it made all of these things. Blackwell continued: “Because as black people in Mississippi, especially the Mississippi Delta, we worked the land. Although we didn’t have the land, we did work it and everything was tied to this land. That’s why I love Mississippi. It’s ours.” She returned to Mississippi almost immediately and began volunteering for voter registration. There she met key activists like Stokely Carmichael and Ed Brown. Blackwell was elected to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s executive committee during 1964 Freedom Summer. She traveled to Atlantic City with the delegation that included Fannie Lou Hamer, Henry Sias and served as an alternative to the all white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Blackwell continued to work in the Delta for education and voting rights for black Mississippians. Blackwell sued the Issaquena County Board of Education in 1965. They had suspended 300 students from wearing freedom pins. This case was filed following Brown v. The Board of Education and served as the basis of one of Mississippi’s first desegregation order. During Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s 1967 visit to Mississippi, Blackwell testified before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty. She was a National Council of Negro Women’s community development specialist for ten years in the 1960s and 1970s. Blackwell was elected mayor Mayersville in 1976. She became the first African American woman mayor of Mississippi. Blackwell held this position for 25-years, until 2001. She was still mayor in 1992 and received the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant. Blackwell stated in 1977 USM oral history, “The power of moving doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. Because nothing goes right for me.” “Nothing has been set up for me as the mayor of Mayersville in Mississippi. Because everything was against me, I have not been given any opportunities to do that. But you learn to move no matter what,” she continued. Because we have different cultures and characteristics, I believe that’s what makes this country so interesting. You don’t know how something could bloom like that. It’s more than that. Because we’ve been through hundreds of years of this country, it makes us move past obstacles. They didn’t know what this society was creating. It created slavery but also made people who can endure any kind of crap. Funeral arrangements are being made.