Unita Blackwell (b. March 18, 1933 – ). Civil rights activist. Unita Blackwell is one of the courageous, yet unsung heroines of the modern civil rights movement. Born to sharecroppers near Lula, Coahoma County, in the Mississippi Delta, Ms. Blackwell rose from poverty to become a national leader and outspoken critic of racial and economic inequality. After her father had an argument with the “bossman” about whether Unita should be required to do work in the cotton field when he believed she was too young, he left Mississippi to find work in Tennessee. From that time, Ms. Blackwell and her mother and siblings moved from relative’s home to another. As a child, she worked in the cotton fields, and in order to get a decent education she had to go across state lines to West Helena, Arkansas. She would live for eight months at a time with her aunt in that city, in effect hiding out from the men who would have required that she work in the fields.
Ms. Blackwell experienced discrimination even within the Black community because of her dark skin, but the love and support of her parents and grandmother gave her confidence. She finished the eight grade at Westside Junior High School and later received a high-school equivalency diploma. At the age of 25, Ms. Blackwell met Jeremiah Blackwell, a cook for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They married a few years later. The couple’s only son, Jeremiah , Jr. was born in 1957.
Ms. Blackwell’s political career began in the early 1960s when young activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) set out to recruit local people to organize voter registration campaigns. She was among the first fearless residents to attempt voter registration in one of the South’s most repressive states. In the early 1960s, registering to vote in Mississippi was a serious political act that could result in the death of a would-be voter. Having taken this step, Unita Blackwell committed herself to social change; she worked for SNCC full-time, developing organizational skills and gaining an exceptional expertise in the area of rural housing.
In the 1970s Ms. Blackwell forged a partnership with other Black women. Through the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), she worked closely with the organization’s president, Dorothy Height, to provide food and housing for rural families through such programs as the Pig and Garden Campaign. Efforts such as these resulted in home ownership and improved social services for local people. By this time Congress had passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voter Rights Act, but a year later, Blacks in Mississippi still suffered from gross race and class disparities. Lack of jobs, poor health care, and inadequate child-care services were some of the pivotal issues that Unita Blackwell confronted.
Elected in 1976, in the tiny hamlet of Mayersville where she was once denied the right to vote, Ms. Blackwell became the first Black woman, and the tenth Black American, mayor in the state of Mississippi. She successfully incorporated the town and initiated other programs to assist the rural poor. By the late 1970s Ms. Blackwell’s career as a grassroots leader propelled her into the national spotlight where she participated in President Jimmy Carter’s Energy Summit at Camp David. From 1976 to 1983 she served as national president to the United States-China People’s Friendship Association and traveled throughout Asia and other parts of the world. In 1989 she was elected chair of the National Conference of Black Mayors.
Although she had lacked formal education in her formative years, Ms. Blackwell’s acumen and experience positioned her to receive a master’s degree in regional planning from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and to study at Harvard University. Her indigenous leadership contributed to the formation of the historically significant Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP, which was headed by the great Fannie Lou Hamer), for which she served as delegate to the 1964 Democratic National Convention,. Later, Ms. Blackwell contributed to efforts to desegregate rural schools by serving as a plaintiff in the landmark case of Blackwell vs. Issaquena County Board of Education (1965-1966) concerning censorship in the public schools. In 1992 she received the distinguished MacArthur Award for her work in housing and community activism.
Unita Blackwell represents women whose exceptional leadership shaped the direction and outcome of the modern black freedom struggle.
Ms. Blackwell’s autobiography, Barefootin’, published in 2006, chronicles her long activism.
In the documentary, A Conversation with Unita Blackwell, gives a tribute to Ms. Blackwell, who was jailed 30 times in her pursuit of a humane existence for Black Americans and other non-white people living in a state of injustice and segregation during the turbulence of the 1960s. The documentary is interspersed throughout with people who know and worked with Ms. Blackwell, and it gives a vivid discussion of her long and illustrious fight for equality.
Ms. Blackwell has made an enduring impact on those who work to help young Black women be all that they can be and more.
In January, 2008, while in Atlanta, Georgia for ceremonies marking MLK Day, Ms. Blackwell disappeared from her hotel room. A search was organized to find her and she was found the next day. She was later diagnosed as suffering from the initial stages of dementia.
While men were largely identified as the movement’s spokespersons and heads of national organizations, women’s leadership was best evidenced at the local and regional levels. Unita Blackwell represents decades of grassroots leadership and the power of women to influence social change. Remarking on her meager beginnings in rural poverty and on the fight for civil rights, Ms. Blackwell has said, “I’m proof that things can change.” While a lesser-known personality, she is nevertheless one of the major figures in the civil rights movement.
“Unita Blackwell”, by Vicki Crawford, from Black Women in America, by Darlene Clark Hine, et. al., Oxford University Press, 2005.
Blackwell, Unita. Interview With Tom C. Dent, August 19, 1978. Tom Dent Oral History Collection, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Blackwell, Unita. Personal Interview With Vicki Crawford, July 25, 1986. Mayersville, MS.
Southern Rural Women’s Network Newsletter, January 1983.
Southern Rural Women’s Network Newsletter: Special Economic Development Issue, June 1983.