Unita Blackwell


SNCC Legacy Project, May 20, 2019

Unita Blackwell's leadership was historic: in 1976 she became the first Black woman to be elected Mayor in the state of Mississippi. Across the South and especially in Mississippi the leadership of women was the critical ingredient of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Women were the backbone of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) whose 1964 challenges to the National Democratic Party resulted in new policies that banned the seating of future delegations chosen through racial discrimination. Those new rules eventually changed the face of United States politics.

In 1963 Unita encountered SNCC when she gave sanctuary to SNCC workers Charlie Cobb and Ivanhoe Donaldson, who had been run out of nearby Sharkey County at gunpoint while canvassing for voter registration. They made it to Mayersville in neighboring Issaquena County where the two saw her standing in front of her small store and asked if she had a telephone. Subsequent conversations about their work in SNCC and the building of the Mississippi Movement caused Unita to join SNCC, and in less than a year she became a field secretary. She was just 31 years old, and, except for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, she was SNCC's oldest field secretary in the state. Unita became a project director for SNCC and helped organize voter registration drives for African Americans across Mississippi.

In April 1965, she and her husband, Jeremiah, sued Issaquena County's Board of Education after the school principal suspended over 300 black childrenincluding their son Jerryfor wearing SNCC pins depicting a black hand and a white hand clasped with the word "SNCC" below the image. The case resulted in a school desegregation plan for the county.

We tell this story not simply to underline Unita's great strength and commitment, but to make the larger point that building relationships in the grassroots -- step by step, brick by brick, if you willwas the source of the unique leadership that arose in the Mississippi Movement and across the Black Belt South. As we like to say, leaders don't make the Movement; the Movement makes leaders. One last point in this very brief expression of our love and respect for Unita: She was able to finish the eighth grade and with a high school equivalency certificate in 1982, she was accepted at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) where she received a master's degree in Community and Regional Planning. In 1992 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship "Genius Grant" for her work in rural housing and water systems.

Unita was a founder of the US China Peoples Friendship Association and led delegations of women to China as an advocate of women's rights. She traveled to China several times as an advocate for women's rights. Her life is a beacon for us today, illuminating the resistance and leadership present in marginalized people and places. All around this nation, let Unita Blackwell's light shine.


As remembered by Jennifer Lawson
May 21, 2019

One of my treasured memories is of a day that Unita took me fishing. She and I were both working with Dorothy Height for the National Council of Negro Women at the time, along with Fannie Lou Hamer. We were creating economic development projects for women in Mississippi. I went to Mayersville to meet with Unita and she suggested that it was a perfect day for fishing. I confessed that I'd never been fishing and she looked at me like I was a pitiful thing but said she'd teach me. I did catch a few little fish that day, but more importantly it was a lesson in patience, stillness, quiet, trust, sisterhood, camaraderie, and so much more. Her hearty laugh and infectious smile are held in my memory.


As remembered by Zoharah Simmons (Gwendolyn Robinson)
May 21, 2019

I want to add my gratitude for the excellent statement written about our Sister Comrade Unita Blackwell! She was all those things Joyce has written and more besides! I remember her wonderful sense of humor! She could make you laugh until you cried! I had the great pleasure of working with Unita in the National Council Of Negro Women's Project Woman Power along with Parthia Hall Wynn, Mrs. Hamer, & Doris Jean Dozier.

I had a wonderful surprise encounter with Unita in 1995 in Beijing, China at the 4th United Nations Conference on Women. We hugged and jumped around at seeing one another there, she leading a delegation and me leading the AFSC Sponsored Quaker Delegation. We created such a ruckus during our raucous reunion that we drew a crowd of curious Chinese, who at that time were not use to seeing Dark-Skinned women. We cracked up over their astonishment!

Unita played a big role, as was noted, in the US-China Friendship Association!

Wasn't there a book written by or about Unita? [Barefootin': Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom] She had made her mark in Mississippi & far beyond.

Rest In Peace and Power, Unita Blackwell!


As remembered by Geri Augusto
May 21, 2019

I met Unita Blackwell at an odd moment. I had just come straight from years living in Angola to Harvard, to study. And there she was, as a Visiting Scholar, at Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politicsteaching hordes of admiring students in her own inimitable fashion, explaining Movement ideas, speaking on panels, and generally bringing Mississippi to the Charles. And I thought, "My, how the world turns!"


As remembered by Joe Brooks

I knew and worked With Sister Anita Blackwell and her husband during the 70's as the President of the Emergency Land Fund saving Black rural land in the Mississippi Delta. She was key in our efforts to organize Black landowners to demand justice and equity from the federal and state government Agencies would were discriminating in the programs practices related to African American. Thank you Anita Blackwell and prayers and thank you to your family. Peace.

© Copyright
Webspinner: webmaster@crmvet.org
(Labor donated)