Blackwell, Unita 1933–
Unita Blackwell 1933–
Mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi
“We had no idea that we were changing the whole political future of America,” said Unita Blackwell, looking back on the passionate civil rights marches of the early 1960s.“We were going because we didn’t have shoes for our children and decent houses to stay in and just the everyday life that we wanted.”
Those were reasons enough for Blackwell to stand up for herself, even though she was thrown in jail more than 70 times and earned the dubious honor of having a burning cross placed on her lawn by the Ku Klux Klan. She worked to improve housing for poor black communities all across America’s Deep South, where the remnants of pre-Civil War ideas about white superiority still flourished, and she tackled the problems of incorporating a tiny Mississippi town so that its 500 residents could enjoy such amenities as streetlights, paved roads and a sewer system.
She accomplished all this with an eighth-grade education that was not augmented until Blackwell was 50years-old.
Unita Blackwell was born in Lula, Mississippi, during the bleak trough of the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce for all Americans; for Blackwell’s sharecropper parents security was so rare that the family lived like nomads, migrating between Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee in search of work that would pay enough to feed them.
Typified by a stint spent in Florida as a tomato peeler, Blackwell’s drifting lifestyle lasted well into her adulthood. She was a young mother, almost 30-years-old, by 1962, when she settled down at last in Mayersville, Mississippi. Her first home was a three-room shack. Later, Blackwell built a modern brick house, but saw every good reason to keep the original shanty intact. “I’m grateful to God for this house,” she told the Chicago Tribune, in 1992. “I kept it because it reminded me of where I came from.”
Although the civil rights era was dawning, work was still scarce in Mississippi. With an eighth-grade education, Blackwell had little choice but to opt for whatever opportunity came along. Because survival demanded it, she told Ebony in 1977;, “I chopped cotton right up the road there for $3 a day.” However, this dead-end job did not last long. The civil-rights era was dawning, and opportunities for advancement were shortly to follow. A few months after Blackwell started work in the cotton fields, an influential organization called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to Mississippi.
SNCC had been established in 1960, with the help of Dr. Martin Luther King. Formed in order to work for civil rights in the Deep South, it had come into being at Shaw
At a Glance…
Born March 18, 1933, in Lula, Mississippi. Two marriages. One son. Education: Master’s degree in Regional Planning from University of Massachusetts, 1983.
Career: Key organizer, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964; National President of the U.S.-China People’s Friendship Association, 1977-1983; elected Mayor of Mayersville, 1976—; had the town incorporated, 1976; appointed by President Carter to the U.S. National Commission on the International Year of the Child, 1979; vice-chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, 1976-80; established Mayors’ Exchange Program between U.S. and China; 1984—; national president of the National Conference of Black Mayors, 1990-92.
Awards: Southern Christian Leadership Award, 1990; Institute of Politics Fellow, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1991; MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, 1992; APA leadership award for elected official, 1994.
Addresses: Office— Office of the Mayor, PO Box 188, Mayersville, MS 39001.
University in Raleigh, North Carolina, after a sit-in at a Greensboro lunch counter, which had refused to serve blacks. From its inception, SNCC focused on the recruitment of disenfranchised African Americans who were not aware of how political action could help them to achieve happier and more productive lives.
Learning a great deal from the well-established Southern Christian Leadership Conference from which it had sprung, SNCC took just one year to organize Freedom Rides, in which buses were sent across southern state lines with black and white passengers to test segregated interstate travel laws. Furthermore, the buses made a point of stopping at segregated lunch counters to ask for service that was unfairly denied to them.
These brave campaigns were not SNCC’s only initiative in their determined effort to achieve equality for African Americans. In another vitally important move, SNCC workers tried to convince southern blacks to register to vote, so that the government would heed their pleas for better schools, jobs, paved streets and sewer systems.
Wisely they sought out people in the community who could teach their fellow-Mississippians about the importance of their political agenda.
Blackwell’s first encounter with the group came in church one Sunday, just after she had finished teaching a Sunday School class. Impressed with her maxim “God helps those who help themselves,” one of the representatives persuaded her to start working with SNCC. She needed little convincing, but found that political involvement carried a heavy price: “1964 was the last time they let us chop ‘cause we went to talkin’ about freedom,” she explained to Ebony, in 1977. “When I was out here asking people to register to vote they wouldn’t let me go back to the fields. “Because she was left without a steady income and was denied welfare payments in company with all Mississippi blacks, she found life a continual struggle for survival.
Yet even this setback did not faze her. “We had a garden; people would give us a pot of beans,” she later recalled. “SNCC was supposed to send us $ 11 every two weeks. My husband worked three months of the year for the Army Corps of Engineers, then we’d buy lots of canned goods.”
A far more sinister calling card was left by the Ku Klux Klan. Blackwell once found a cross burning on her lawn, and thereafter learned to sleep fitfully, in order to escape injury. She also took part in a second confrontation with the Klan, which she described vividly in a publication called Rural Development Leadership Network News. “One time I was standing in Natchez, Mississippi telling people they had a right to register to vote, and the Klan surrounded the church. I got the word out to the Deacons …. The first thing the Klan knew the Deacons were surrounding them. The Klan is standing out there with their sheets waving. And the Deacons were standing with their stuff waving, which were the guns … and it wasn’t long before we had no Klan … and we were still standing there telling folks ‘You have a right to register to vote.”
Mississippians brave enough to risk Klan violence for the privilege of standing up for their rights often found themselves with even more roadblocks in their path when they actually arrived at the County Clerk’s office to register. The more racist among these bureaucrats made sure the registration process was as stressful as possible by asking questions about the state constitution that mystified the less educated among the would-be voters, who could then be denied the opportunity to make their voices heard. In addition, they were often backed in their bullying by armed men, who sat outside the registration building in pickup trucks.
Nevertheless, Blackwell did not lose heart. Firmly committed to the voter-registration goals of SNCC, she learned street-smart ways of showing how important voting could be. “In the early part of the movement, we didn’t ask people to register to vote,” she recalled, in a 1985 Essence interview, “We talked political education around the issues and services they were interested in. If women are interested in child care, then you work on that.” In another smart move, she also started augmenting her eighth-grade education by reading black history, and following the advice of civil rights role models active at the time, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman from rural Mississippi like herself who had become a leader in the civil rights struggle.
Working alongside Hamer, Blackwell became an enthusiastic founder of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, which was founded in the 1964 election year to challenge the whites-only Democratic Party. This time, gaining support was a little easier, for the Party’s agenda carried two powerful missions: to establish laws preventing black children’s employment as sharecroppers, and to establish black schools which, like their segregated white counterparts, would teach mathematics and science.
After weeks of county conventions, 64 black delegates and four whites were chosen to go to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They did not succeed in unseating the Democratic Party, but they did earn themselves a spotlight, which proved crucial to the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in employment, and the Voting Rights Act of the following year. They also gained valuable experience in how to garner grassroots support successfully; they had given all interested black Americans their first chance ever to participate in political action, and they had found out how far political action could take them in challenging the existing political system.
Within five years of her arrival in Mississippi, Blackwell had become a seasoned activist. In 1967, she co-founded Mississippi Action Community Education, a community development organization which helped districts to incorporate as towns. Incorporation enabled them to set their geographical boundaries so that they could have a legal identity-an important advantage when they wanted government help in installing streetlights or electricity. Incorporation also gave any town’s residents the chance to run their home as they saw fit, arranging their finances, their means of government and their schools in any suitable way, as long as they followed state laws.
During the early 1970s Blackwell began to work for the National Council of Negro Women, who were using the recently-introduced Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Turnkey 3 Plan to build much-needed low-income housing. Expecting homeowners to repair, maintain and provide garden care for each property, the Plan regarded these activities as “sweat equity” which counted towards a down payment. Taken as a whole, it was a sophisticated and novel concept, which required considerable coordination. A stellar organizer, Blackwell traveled the country bringing local groups together to provide housing, with money coming from HUD and the Ford Foundation. The first 200 units were set up in Gulfport, Mississippi, with another 86 following in St. Louis, Missouri, 436 in Dallas and 1,000 in Puerto Rico.
In 1976, Blackwell’s experience with the National Council of Negro Women paid a handsome reward when she became Mayor of Mayersville, and thus Mississippi’s first black woman mayor. She soon became aware that her job would entail many challenges since the town’s 500 residents enjoyed no paved streets, no water system, no police force, and no decent housing.
Her first step was to have the town incorporated so that federal money could be requested to provide these vital services. Having a personal knowledge of the bureaucratic steps involved, Blackwell gladly accepted the challenge of negotiating with both state and federal government. Within a couple of years, she had achieved her goal: Mayersville now boasted paved streets, a sewer system and streetlights, though the town’s $30,000 annual budget simply would not stretch to include a police force.
Next, she applied for a federal grant in order to build a housing development. The government gladly sent the money, but the cost of the land proved so expensive that there were no funds left for building. Blackwell’s personal dream of housing for the elderly and the disabled had to be put on hold, and the money had to be sent back—minus $50,000 which she kept for a badly-needed firetruck which was part of the original project.
Other measures proved more durable, such as the unique arrangement in which foods such as chicken, sausages, vegetables and fruit are bought in bulk in cooperation with other towns, then packed in family-size large boxes for family consumption. Families may buy as many boxes as they need at $ 14 each, but must also put in two hours of babysitting, packing boxes, or calling on the elderly for every box they buy.
Despite the demands of her position, Blackwell was fully aware from the beginning of her tenure that she needed credentials in order to give herself credibility with other mayors all over the country. She was unable to afford to return to school, so she applied for a scholarship from the National Rural Fellows Program. Selected from 100 applicants, the 50-year-old Blackwell entered the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1982, emerging a year later with a master’s degree in regional planning.
John Mullin, who headed the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning during Blackwell’s student years, remembered her brisk efficiency well. One incident, particularly, had impressed him. Having told the class that local communities were entitled to technical assistance from regional planning organizations, he noted that Blackwell had waited for the break, then immediately called her assistant in Mississippi to make sure the relevant agency did their job for Mayers-ville, Mississippi. Eleven years later, Mullin told Planning magazine: “It was quite remarkable. There was knowledge, synthesis, and action, all in a period of 15 minutes.”
In 1990, Mayor Blackwell was elected president of the National Conference of Black Mayors, a group then consisting of 321 members, of whom 75 were women. An Atlanta-based organization founded in 1974, the NCBM helps its members to run its municipalities more efficiently. Technical assistance is available to those who require it, along with innovative ideas for administration, plus a useful network of other politically-motivated mayors in many areas of the world, including China, South and Central America, Africa and the Caribbean.
The international connection was a valuable addition, which she herself had helped to initiate. Extremely well-traveled and well-connected in Europe, Africa and Asia by this time, she had made her first trip to China in 1973, soon after President Nixon’s visit had opened the door to a relationship between Beijing and Washington, D.C. Then, at the request of actress Shirley MacLaine, a friend from her civil rights days, she had helped to found the U.S.-China People’s Friendship Association, which had made it possible to learn about the lives of ordinary Chinese people. Now, with 15 trips to China behind her, she paved the way for an American visit by mayors from several Chinese cities.
In 1992 the world began to recognize Unita Blackwell’s name. In March, she attended a conference of the Children’s Defense Fund in Atlanta, where she made her views felt on the ills of the child-care system at both the national and community levels. “You’re sick and you need a doctor,” was her crisp summing-up, according to the Atlanta Journal/Atlanta Constitution of March 8th. A couple of months later, she was given a Genius Award by the John & Catherine MacArthur Foundation of Chicago. Since the MacArthur Foundation bestows this award via nomination rather than application, she was thrilled to be included among the 33 recipients. She was able to augment her $6,000 annual salary by a full $350,000, a just reward for a lifetime of frugal living and hard work.
But, though the money allowed her to put aside savings for her grandson’s education, far more important than the financial gains was fulfillment of the personal dream that had been on hold since the early 1970s-brick housing for the less fortunate among Mayersville’s 500 residents. By 1992, there were six units, in three separate housing developments; a 20-unit facility for elderly and disabled people, plus two 16-unit buildings of subsidized housing, one for the elderly, and the other for families.
Williams, Juan, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement, Penguin, 1987.
Elliot, Jeffrey M. and Sheikh R. Ali, The State and Local Government Political Dictionary, ABC-CLIO, 1988, p. 200-241.
Lanker, Brian, I Dream a World, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989, p. 50.
Weisbrot, Robert, Freedom Bound: A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement, Norton, 1990.
Mills, Kay, This Little Light of Mine, Dutton, 1992, p. 26.
Hine, Darlene Clark, Ed. Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America, Facts on File, Inc. 1997, p. 49.
Atlanta Journal/Atlanta Constitution, March 8, 1992, p. D7; June 16, 1992, p. D1.
Chicago Tribune, July 5, 1992, February 4, 1994.
China Today, January, 1994, p. 29.
Christian Science Monitor, January 18, 1991, p. A14.
Ebony, December, 1977, p. 53.
Essence, May, 1985, p. 113.
Los Angeles Times, August 2, 1992.
New York Times, June 17, 1992, p. A18.
Planning, March 1994, p. 18.
Rural Development Leadership Network News, n.d.
March 18, 1933
Born in Lula, Mississippi, civil rights activist and politician Unita Blackwell grew up during the depression and spent her first thirty years migrating from farm to farm in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Blackwell has been an exemplar of grass-roots activism and organization within rural African-American communities.
In 1962 Blackwell and her first husband settled in the then-unincorporated town of Meyersville in Issaquena County, Mississippi, where she chopped cotton in the fields for three dollars a day. Inspired by visiting civil rights workers, she registered to vote and began to encourage other laborers to register. Fired by her employers for her activism, Blackwell joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee full-time. In 1964 she helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City with the party in its failed attempt to be seated. In 1968 she would serve as a state delegate at the Democratic convention in Chicago. In 1965 and 1966 she initiated Blackwell v. Board of Education, a landmark case that furthered school desegregation in Mississippi.
In 1976, equipped with the political and administrative skills she had developed in the civil rights movement, Blackwell set out to incorporate the 691-acre town of Mayersville, Mississippi, organizing town meetings, filing petitions, and having the land surveyed. The incorporation became official on December 28, 1976. Blackwell was elected mayor, the first African-American woman mayor in Mississippi, a post she held for four terms. An expert on rural housing and development, Blackwell has campaigned successfully for state and federal funds for public housing and welfare. She was selected as chairperson of the National Conference of Black Mayors, and she received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992.
Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1993, pp. 138–139.
Kilborn, Keter. "A Mayor and Town Pulled Up." New York Times Biographical Service 23 (June 1992): 760.
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