(Note: On this final day of Women’s History Month, this is one of two SHE: Surviving, Healing, and Evolving articles that will go beyond the month of March and into the next month in light of the fact that many people, all over the country, including in Maywood, will be asked, over the next several days, to take part in the political process by voting in local elections. Besides, women’s history should be read every month!)
by Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.
“I thought nothing from nothing leaves nothing, and we have nothing, and we’re going to have to stand for something. I was afraid, but that was the day I decided I was going to die for my freedom.” The Honorable Unita Blackwell
She was jailed everyday for 30 consecutive days because she had the nerve to be involved in the Freedom Summer Movement, which put her on a collision course with the brutal White power structure of her home state of Mississippi. In sum total, she was jailed 75 times.
Unita Blackwell says she “was born in the movement,” because she was born Black. Like so many African Americans of previous generations, and now, her life has been one of arduous, dangerous, and consistent struggle, but her mental strength and tenacity has been honored again and again. One honor, of historic proportions and immense value, came when she was elected mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi, making her the first Black woman in Mississippi history to hold that title.
A river town in west Mississippi, Mayersville was a popular shipping port during the antebellum days. But it was a tiny patch of distressed land with a long-suffering Black “side of town” when Unita was first elected mayor in 1976. Yet, while still serving as mayor, in 1992, and at the age of 59, she was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant (the “genius grant”) for her innovative approach to solving her town’s problems.
There stands, today, for example, affordable brick houses, which she willed into existence, to replace some of the poor, dilapidated living structures in that Mississippi Delta town; and the town is now incorporated. She also put a utility district in place, because the town did not have a water system that supplied clean drinking water, and many homes were simply without running water, when she came into office. The MacArthur grant committee also admired and acknowledged the fact that Unita had enrolled in school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, at age 50, to earn a master’s degree in regional planning.
Born “U.Z.” in Lula, Coahoma County, Mississippi, but later renamed Unita Zelma by an influential elementary school teacher who recognized that she would do well in life and needed more than initials, Unita’s parents were sharecroppers who picked cotton. As a young girl, her education was complete after the 8th grade, as was common among Black people who were deprived of so many of the bounties of being an American citizen. Yet, that did not prevent her from engaging in the activist work that would propel her into greatness. (Like many African Americans who were denied access to formal educational opportunities, she cultivated her mind by being an avid reader and listener.)
At some point in her youth, her family was compelled to move to Tennessee after her father picked up, by the collar, a white man who had attempted to strike him. Unita must have inherited that courageous self-defense streak. As a young girl, she had gone to “White town” to retrieve her family’s mail, when a White boy called her “nigger, nigger, nigger.” Unita and the boy “got into it.” Of course, her mother was beyond frightened, for fear of White reprisal, when her daughter returned home and detailed the incident to her; yet, she bravely hugged and supported her daughter. Unita said her mother “was ready to die for her child.” That same mother bolstered her daughter’s sagging self-esteem, which was said to be “hanging [by] a thread,” because Unita, a dark-skinned child, was teased, mercilessly, by her racially traumatized peers who were, clearly, acting out the racism they had already internalized. (quotes from Wright Edelman, pg.97)
As a married adult, Unita returned to Mississippi when she and her husband acquired his deceased grandmother’s land; and she worked in cotton fields until she was 30-years-old. In 1964, during what has been named “Freedom Summer,” Stokely Carmicheal (later known as Kwame Toure), and other members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) spoke before her church congregation. She had already heard about the Freedom Riders, a group of interracial students who had boarded buses and rode south in defiance of segregated interstate travel laws. Carmicheal, who had been a brilliant 19-year-old student at Howard University at the time, had been one of many Freedom Riders who had been locked up in Parchman Farm, a notoriously savage Mississippi penitentiary.
That day at Unita’s church, the SNCC activists asked for volunteers to register to vote. She stood up to get involved, but her husband “pulled her dress” to make her sit down until he decided to rise. At that time, strict gender norms envisioned that the man would take the lead on important decisions of that sort. Unita has said, “I sat down and waited, and he didn’t get up, so I poked him until he did stand, and when he got up, I stood up, and I’ve been up ever since.” She signed on with SNCC as a “field worker” charged with persuading Black people to try to register to vote. (quotes from Wright-Edelman, pgs. 98-99)
Attempting to vote in Mississippi, and throughout the entire south, up until the early 1970s, was an extremely perilous adventure. Black people were routinely beaten in ghastly ways, dismissed from their jobs, thrown off the land they sharecropped, and even killed by ignorant and “educated” Whites for daring to participate in the act of helping to elect the people who would govern them. After Reconstruction, Mississippi, with its Ku Klux Klan, its well-entrenched racist ideology, its segregationist lawmakers — and, later on, with its racist organizations, like the White Citizens’ Councils and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a legislative creation, — was one of the most ardent and active states in trying to establish the south as a neo-slave nation within a nation. This is true even though Mississippi had been the first state to send a Black man to the Senate (Hiram Revels) during Reconstruction. He bravely served in the U.S. Capitol — the so-called “Temple of Liberty” — which had been built by slaves.
So, valiantly, Unita and a group of people, that included several schoolteachers, attempted to register to vote, but they were received by menacing, hateful white men in trucks, with guns, circling the courthouse — the courthouse they were not allowed inside of, unless they were going in the back door to pay their taxes. Unita said that was “the day I got angry… I thought nothing from nothing leaves nothing and we have nothing, and we’re going to have to stand for something. I was afraid, but that was the day I decided I was going to die for my freedom.” (Wright Edelman, pg.99)
Unita and the others, all of whom had been cruelly directed to interpret the state’s Constitution, as a precondition to voting, were denied their right to vote — and they lost their jobs. But that did not deter her from persuading her neighbors to try to register. And so began a life filled with meetings, infiltrators who tipped off police about the activists’ plans, a cross burning outside her home, jail time, and myriad lawsuits against the state of Mississippi. (Black people had to sue for practically everything, including receiving telephone service in their homes. Marian Wright Edelman,* the brilliant founder of the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington DC, who was the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar, was one of the lawyers who waged some of the lawsuits for Unita and other Black citizens.)
Needless to say, the activities of the local Black, and northern Black and White, community organizers enraged the local Whites. (Unita has said that when the northern Whites came to Mississippi, “I think it was a reassurance that all White people was not like the ones that we were dealing with.” (Oh Freedom Over Me American Radioworks Interview, pg. 5) In addition to voter registration pursuits, Freedom Summer activists set up “Freedom Schools,” and lodged a challenge to the Democratic Party political establishment. (SNCC wanted to use grassroots strategies to help local Blacks in their attempt to establish political leadership.)
The activists’ efforts were met with audacious violence from local Whites, including verbal and psychological abuse, rapes, physical torture, bombings, church burnings, and murder. There were nights when shots were fired into Unita’s and other residents’ homes. Also, Unita and the other activists were compelled to drive on the backroads for fear of the Mississippi Highway Patrol, who were, in her words, “just as dangerous as the Klan.”
Indeed, in June, during that Freedom Summer movement, civil rights workers James Chaney (African American), Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman (both White), went missing. Six-weeks later when their remains were found, they had been beaten, murdered, and buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Through investigations and court procedures it was discovered that the local deputy sheriff had jailed them on trumped up charges and released them to members of the Klan. The deputy sheriff, and the sheriff himself, were reputed klansmen, and one of the klansmen, who was convicted of manslaughter many years later, was a Baptist “preacher.” During the long search for the missing activists, the bodies of nine other Black men were found in swamps and woods. (The highly fictionalized Hollywood motion picture, Mississippi Burning, concerns the deaths of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman and the FBI’s involvement in the case.)
Recognizing the importance of the Black vote, and determined to persevere, Unita took part in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)** to challenge the legitimacy of the all-White Democratic delegation that would go to Atlantic City, New Jersey for the purpose of nominating the Democratic presidential candidate in 1964. The racially integrated MFDP was formed because Blacks were denied participation in the regular Democratic Party in Mississippi. Indeed, only approximately 5% of Mississippi’s Black population had managed to get registered to vote; and, at that time, Mississippi was a solidly Democratic state and many of its political power-brokers were “Dixiecrats.” The Dixiecrats were steadfastly invested in oppressing Black people and in the rigid maintenance of white supremacist policies and thought. One of the state’s then U.S. Senators, James O. Eastland, who was given to spouting offensive racist doggrel on the floor of the Senate, was one of its most vicious voices.
Entertainers Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier bore the expenses for the bus that transported Unita, and the other activists, to the Democratic National Convention. It was an extraordinary ride that featured stunning drama. When the Klan attempted to turn the bus around with a roadblock they had erected, a woman on the bus, a modern day Harriet Tubman, held a knife to the bus driver’s neck and urged him to drive through the roadblock.
At the Convention, The MFDP challenged the right of the all-White Mississippi delegation to represent the state Democratic party. Lodging constitutional arguments and citing Democratic party rules, they advocated for members of the MFDP to be issued credentials and seated. MFDP vice-chair, the great and incomparable ***Fannie Lou Hamer (“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”), gave a magnificent speech, broadcast to America, wherein she detailed the atrocities she and other Black people in Mississippi endured as a way of life. In her own inimitable style, she then concluded her remarks with a powerfully exquisite question:
“If the Freedom party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” (MFDP Challenge to the Democratic Convention, pg.7)
In the end, they were unsuccessful in their quest to unseat the Mississippi Democratic “regulars,” but their organizational skill and extraordinary eloquence profoundly affected the national viewing audience. People credit their activities, wherein they challenged injustice and demanded fairness, for laying the foundation for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Upon returning home, Unita resumed her activist work in Mississippi. She co-founded the Mississippi Action for Community Education, a community development group that, among other things, assisted geographically distinct districts with the act of incorporating. Such a move allowed the former districts to have a formal government capable of making improvements such as wiring electricity in the towns, taking control over their own finances, and establishing and governing their own schools.
Unita also aligned herself with the National Council of Negro Women, as they began a project with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Ford Foundation, to build low-income housing through a “sweat equity” program. Under this concept, people could help repair run-down properties and have it count as a down-payment on the home. Unita traveled all over the country helping organizers secure HUD dollars for such projects. By the time she was elected mayor in 1976, her work with HUD enabled her to bring decent housing to Mayersville. Also, drawing on her many significant and useful life experiences, she set about incorporating Mayersville, paving streets, installing the water system, and forming a police force, among other things.
Sadly, in some ways, Unita’s marriage was a casualty of the personal growth and development she underwent as a member of the movement. At a time when women were supposed to be in the background, especially in the south, paying deference to their husbands, Unita was a woman in search of her freedom, her voice, and her destiny. As people began to seek out her opinion and her leadership more and more, the marriage collapsed. Interestingly, her son grew up to be a marksman in the United States Navy, in part, she thinks, because he saw people harassing his mother — including pointing guns in her face.
Unita has never tired of pursuing more education, personal development and being a leader in society. Always an ardent learner, soaking up knowledge and information from the people she had worked with and from her manifold experiences, she applied for, and received, a National Rural Fellows Program scholarship. Using her phenomenal life for college credit, she was able to work toward a master’s degree at Massachusetts. Also, she has held several prestigious positions, including coming full circle as the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Democratic Party! She was an Institute of Politics Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in 1991, and she has traveled extensively, including to China as the National President of the US-China People’s Friendship Association. Indeed, her honors and accomplishments are far too numerous to properly chronicle.
Believing that government is for the people, by the people, and of the people, Unita Blackwell fearlessly has demanded respect and helped seize control of and reshape her community for the good. Honor this phenomenal woman, who still lives, for women’s history month.
*Among MANY other things, the brilliant Marian Wright Edelman was Hillary Clinton’s first boss out of Yale Law School (where Edelman herself, a Spelman graduate, went to law school). Hillary worked as a lawyer at Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, and considers Wright Edelman one of her great mentors.
**The history of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is a fascinating one that should be studied by freedom-loving people everywhere. The late Howard Zinn, a former Spelman College professor and the author of several books, including A People’s History of the United States, said, about the MFDP’s 1964 state convention: “It was a beautifully-organized, crowded, singing assembly of laborers, farmers, housewives, from the farthest corners of Mississippi, and made the political process seem healthy for the first time in the state’s history.” In today’s political climate, where people who felt disenfranchised chose Trump, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is instructive.
***Fannie Lou Hamer is one of my all time heroines, along with Ida B. Wells Barnett. Both women’s lives should be studied over and over for the times when you will need strength and courage in this life.
Wright-Edelman, Marian. (1999). Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors. HarperCollins Books: New York.
http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhome.htm. Freedom Movement History and Timeline, 1951-1968: 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Events, see section on the MFDP Challenge to the Democratic Convention
encyclopedia.com. Contemporary Black biography. Unita Blackwell. Copyright 2015, Thomas Gale.
americanradioworks. publicradio.org/features/oh_freedom/interview_blackwell.html. Oh Freedom Over Me: Selected Interview: Unita Blackwell
Mills, K. (1992). Unita Blackwell: MacArthur Genuis Award Caps a Creative Political Life. Los Angeles Times Article Collections (articles.latimes.com/print/1992-08-02/opinion/op-5791_1_unita-blackwell.)
For further study on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party:
Teaching A Peoples’ History: Zinn Education Project
Updated: March 31, 2017 at 10:13