I was deeply sorry to hear of the passing of my friend Mayor Unita Blackwell. She was one of a kind. She was always laughing and making other people laugh and she never stopped growing, learning, rolling with the punches, and punching back when she had to. As a civil rights activist, a member of the executive committee of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party along with Fannie Lou Hamer, and the first Black woman mayor in Mississippi, Unita achieved many “firsts.” She was elected mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi in 1976 and served for more than 20 years. She also became President of the National Conference of Black Mayors, was an adviser to six presidents, and received many honors, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”—but she earned all of those honors the hard way. She spoke movingly of experiencing “emotional violence every day” for her movement work in Mississippi.
She once said she filed a lawsuit against almost every agency and operation of White people in the state of Mississippi and I was fortunate to serve as her lawyer for some of those lawsuits. During one period Unita said she got arrested every day for 30 straight days. She was jailed about 75 times for trying to organize people to register to vote. After 1964, when she joined the movement, she said she never slept uninterrupted for years because she and her family and friends would take turns sleeping and mounting guard against the Ku Klux Klan. She shared with my son Jonah how it felt when a cross was burned in front of her house and showed him the exact spot. But none of this stopped her.
Years ago I persuaded Unita to tell some of her stories for an oral history video in front of an audience of college students at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Haley Farm outside Knoxville, Tennessee. She described how she first got involved in the movement during Freedom Summer 1964 when Stokely Carmichael and Charlie Cobb visited her Mississippi church to recruit volunteers to attempt to register to vote. She said: “I thought that was a good idea.
I’ve been asked what made me get into the movement. It was the needs: the needs to be met for education, for us to live and eat and be decent and have the necessities of things in life. I stood up when they asked who would try to register. My husband pulled my dress to make me sit down and said, ‘Don’t get up ’til I get up.’ I sat down and waited, and he didn’t get up, so I poked him until he did stand, and then when he got up, I stood up, and I’ve been up ever since.”
She never stopped standing up. She described what happened when she tried to register to vote for the first time and found herself and the rest of her group surrounded by the sheriff and a group of men in trucks: “It was awful to see the hate in the eyes of the White men who had come with guns. That’s 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.” She added: “You die anyway, so you might as well die for something. It was worth it! It was nothing in vain.”
Nothing about Unita Blackwell’s life of leadership and service was in vain. She was a long haul partner for the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office, especially the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI), which organizes, trains, and nurtures women in 77 impoverished rural counties in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to incubate businesses, build networks of leaders, and advocate for public policies that help families and communities. Today Unita Blackwell is the mother and namesake of SRBWI’s Young Women’s Leadership Program, which brings young women and their mentors to a five-day leadership training and career development institute each summer on the campus of Tougaloo College. She remains an inspiration and role model and we will be honored to continue to amplify her voice and mission. Unita Blackwell was a brilliant, courageous, and original warrior for justice and will be deeply missed.