Continuing with the theme of this open thread, I highlight the Unita Blackwell.
Unita Blackwell (born March 18, 1933) is an American civil rights activist who was the first African-American woman, and the tenth African American, to be elected mayor in the U.S. state of Mississippi. Blackwell was a project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and helped organize voter drives for African Americans across Mississippi. She is also a founder of the US China Peoples Friendship Association, a group dedicated to promoting cultural exchange between the United States and China. Barefootin’, Blackwell’s autobiography published in 2006, charts her activism.
Unita Blackwell was born on March 18, 1933, in Lula, Mississippi, to sharecroppers Virda Mae and Willie Brown. Blackwell’s uncle gave her the name U.Z., which she kept until she was in the sixth grade when her teacher told her that she needed “a real name, not just initials”. Blackwell and her teacher decided on Unita Zelma.
Blackwell and her parents lived in Lula, until 1936 when she was three years old; Blackwell’s father left the plantation on which he worked, and fled to Memphis, Tennessee, fearing for his life after he confronted his boss about speaking to his wife. Soon afterwards, Blackwell and her mother left the plantation to live with him. On June 20, 1938, Blackwell’s parents separated due to religious differences. Blackwell and her mother went to West Helena, Arkansas to live with Blackwell’s great aunt so that she had the opportunity to receive an education. While living there, Blackwell often visited her father in Memphis. During the summer months she would leave West Helena and live with her grandfather and grandmother in Lula, where she helped plant and harvest cotton. She was 14 when she finished the eighth grade, the final year of school at Westside, a school in West Helena for black children.
Blackwell was 25 when she first met Jeremiah Blackwell, a cook for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A few years later, they traveled to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and were married by ajustice of the peace. In January 1957, Blackwell became extremely ill and was taken to the hospital in West Helena where she was pronounced dead. She was later found to be alive in her hospital room, and claims to have had a near-death experience. On July 2, 1957, the couple’s only son, Jeremiah Blackwell Jr. (Jerry), was born.
Blackwell first got involved in the civil rights movement in June 1964, when two activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to Mayersville and held meetings in the church she belonged to concerning African Americans’ right to vote. The following week she and seven others went to the courthouse to take a voter registration test so that they could vote. While they were outside the courthouse waiting to take the test, a group of white farmers from the area heard what was happening and tried to scare them off. The group stayed there all day, but only two were able to take the test. The racism that the group experienced, Blackwell says, made that day “the turning point” of her life. Jeremiah and Unita lost their jobs the next day after their employer found out that they had been part of the group. Blackwell attempted to pass the test three times over the next few months. In early fall she took the test successfully and became a registered voter.
When the United States Commission on Civil Rights came to Mississippi in January 1965, Blackwell testified in front of them about her experiences with voter discrimination:
“ I filled it out and I had section 97 and I wrote it down and looked it over and I picked some of the words out of, you know, what I had wrote down; put that in there and turned it over. And I misspelled ‘length’ and I said ‘Oh, my Lord.’ And so then I filled out the rest of it and when I got through I handed it to her, and I said ‘Well, I misspelled this, and well, I didn’t date the top,’ and she said ‘Oh, that’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right.’ And then she ran and got the book and [registered me].—Unita Blackwell ”
After meeting Fannie Lou Hamer in the summer of 1964 and hearing her experiences in the civil rights movement, Blackwell decided to join the SNCC. As a project director for the SNCC, she organized voter registration drives across Mississippi. Later that year, she became a member on the executive committee of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party(MFDP). In late August she and 67 other activists left Mississippi to represent the MFDP at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in an attempt to get the MFDP seated as delegates. They were unsuccessful in getting seats, but the move brought the party and the Mississippi civil rights movement into the public eye.
In the late 1960′s Blackwell worked as a community development specialist with the National Council of Negro Women. During her time participating in the civil rights movement, she was jailed over 70 times because of her role in civil rights protests and other actions.
The Blackwells filed a suit, Blackwell v. Issaquena County Board of Education, against the Issaquena County Board of Education on April 1, 1965, after the principal suspended over 300 black children, including Jerry, the Blackwells’ son, for wearing pins that depicted a black hand and a white hand clasped with the word “SNCC” below them. The suit covered several issues including the students use of the “freedom” pins, and asked that the Issaquena County School District desegregate their schools per the Supreme Court Ruling, Brown v. Board of Education. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, decided that the students were being disruptive with their use of the freedom pins, but that the school district had to desegregate their schools to comply with federal law, by the Fall of 1965.
Blackwell’s son and approximately 50 other children boycotted the school, because of its decision to not let the children wear the SNCC freedom pins. As a result, Blackwell and some other activists in the community decided that it was vital to school those children. She helped open freedom schools in Issaquena County, to resolve the issue. The schools became popular and continued to teach classes every summer until 1970, when the local schools finally desegregated.
Blackwell has been on 16 diplomatic missions to China since 1973. As part of her commitment to better relations between the United States and China, she was an officer in the US China Peoples Friendship Association, an association dedicated to promoting cultural exchange between the United States and China. Blackwell was elected Mayor of Mayersville in 1976 and held this office until 2001, making her the first female African-American mayor in Mississippi. As mayor, she oversaw the construction of several sets of public housing, the first time that federal housing had been built in Issaquena County. Blackwell has also served on the Democratic National Committee and as co-chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party. In late 1982 Blackwell went to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and received a Master’s Degree in Regional Planning.
As part of her community development efforts, she helped found Mississippi Action for Community Education, a community-development organization in Greenville, Mississippi. From 1990 to 1992, Blackwell was president of the National Conference of Black Mayors. Blackwell became a voice for rural housing and development, President Jimmy Carter invited her to an Energy Summit at Camp David. Blackwell was also awarded US$350,000, from a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1992.