Unita Blackwell was a field worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a prominent member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), and a local elected official in Mayersville, Mississippi.
Blackwell was born into a family of sharecroppers in Lula, Mississippi, (Coahoma County) in 1933. At an early age, Blackwell and her siblings were forced to travel to West Helena, Arkansas, to attend public schools due to lack of opportunity in Mississippi. Blackwell ended her formal public education in eighth grade and returned to work on plantations in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Florida with her husband Jeremiah and son Jerry.
In 1960, Blackwell and her family relocated permanently to Mayersville, Mississippi. By the summer of 1964, known commonly as the “Freedom Summer,”Blackwell encountered the first civil rights workers who had traveled from across the nation to Issaquena County. Citing the work of local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) leader Henry Sias, the “Freedom Riders,”and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as sources of inspiration, Blackwell began work registering local black residents to vote as a field representative for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
After meeting famed leader Fannie Lou Hamer in 1964, Blackwell also became active in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). On July 25, 1964, Blackwell was named the MFDP delegate for Issaquena County and eventually rose to become a member of the Executive Council of the MFDP. By August of that year, Blackwell left as a state delegate for Atlantic City to challenge the delegates submitted by the Democratic Party of Mississippi to the Democratic National Convention. Following Hamer’s impassioned, nationally televised speech to the Convention and various attempts at compromise, the MFDP was offered two at-large seats at the Convention as representation. The MFDP eventually rejected the compromise and returned to Mississippi.
Upon her return, Blackwell spearheaded the movement to protect students suspended for wearing pro-SNCC paraphernalia in public schools in January of 1965. Blackwell arranged for NAACP lawyers in Jackson to file suit on First Amendment grounds on April 1, 1965. Though the case file would ultimately be called Blackwell v. Issaquena County Board of Education, Blackwell’s son and husband, Jerry and Jeremiah, were officially listed as the first plaintiffs, not Unita herself.
District Judge Herald Cox initially rejected the request for an injunction concerning the SNCC pins in Blackwell v. Issaquena County. Simultaneously, however, Cox ruled that the black students of Henry Weathers High School could not be prohibited from attending white public schools. Cox ordered Issaquena County to submit a desegregation plan in what Unita Blackwell sites as “one of the very first desegregation cases in Mississippi.”
While Blackwell v. Issaquena County meandered through the court system, Blackwell, along with other volunteers, began expanding SNCC’s “Freedom School”movement to provide a school for the students suspended from Issaquena County schools. Freedom Schools attracted highly educated teachers from across the nation to underserved areas. Following Blackwell’s efforts, Freedom Schools operated every summer until the early 1970s when Issaquena public schools were integrated.
As momentum for the 1965 Voting Rights Act swelled, national leaders began accepting testimony on disenfranchisement in the American South. Blackwell provided a key testimony at a hearing at the Veterans Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi. Later that year, while conducting a march to protest disenfranchisement of blacks in the Delta, Blackwell was arrested and held in the stockyards of the Jackson Coliseum for eleven days. Blackwell would go on to be arrested two more times in the course of her life for civil rights protests.
In April of 1967, Senator Robert Kennedy journeyed to Mississippi with members of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty to hold a seminar on oppression and disempowerment. Blackwell, along with other state leaders, testified before the Subcommittee on the educational and economic needs of their localities.
Throughout the 1970s, Blackwell served as a community development coordinator for the National Council of Negro Women.
In 1977, Blackwell was elected mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi, in Issaquena County and served in that capacity until 2001. She was the first elected black female mayor in Mississippi.
Blackwell has been named a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In 1983 she received a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts and would eventually attain four honorary doctorates. In 1992, Blackwell won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius”grant.
“Council of Federated Organizations (COFO).”King Encyclopedia.
“An Oral History with Honorable Unita Blackwell.”Civil Rights in Mississippi: Digital Archive. 1977.
“Barfootin’.”Unita Blackwell and JoAnne Prichard Morris. Crown Publishers. 2006.
“From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice.”Thomas F. Jackson. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2006.
“National Council of Churches.”http://home.wlu.edu/~connerm/AfAmStudies/Contemporary%20Culture%20Project/Religion&Culture/ncc.html
“Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi.”Mark Newman. University of Georgia Press. 2004.
“Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.”John Dittmer. University of Illinois Press. 1994.
“The Issaquena Genealogy and History Project: W.E. Mollison.”http://www.rootsweb.com/~msissaq2/mollison.html
“An Oral History with Mrs. Minnie Ripley.”Civil Rights in Mississippi: Digital Archive. 1979. http://anna.lib.usm.edu/%7Espcol/crda/oh/ohripleymp.html