Fix It for Free
Unita Blackwell about Muriel Tillinghast

Originally published in On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail, by Charles Cobb Jr.

See 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer for background & more information.

[In the summer of 1964, Unita Blackwell was a sharecropper in Issaquena County, Mississippi. She had an 8th-grade education, the maximum available to her as a Black child. She was one of the first to respond when SNCC organizers begin a voter registration drive in isolated Issaquena. She was immediately fired by the white landowner. She goes on to become a SNCC organizer herself, an MFDP delegate to the Democratic Convention, the first Black Mayor of Mayersville (and the first Black woman Mayor in all of Mississippi). In later life she achieved a Masters Degree from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, won a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award, chaired the National Conference of Black Mayers, founded the U.S. China Peoples Friendship Association, and wrote her autobiography Barefootin': Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom.]

Muriel [Tillinghast] came on down here to Issaquena County and stayed in the summer of 1964. I'm sittin down watching her with this big hankerchief tied around her head It was a cottonfield hankerchief. You know, the kind you stuck it in the back of your pocket. She walked different than we did. Wasn't no fear we could see. And she was lookin white people in the eyes — you know, we didn't do that down here. And I'm thinking, "Lord, that child gonna get herself killed; get us all killed."

We had never quite seen anybody this unafraid and yet she also recognized, now that I look back on it, the danger that she was in. She was the teacher. She explained to us what voting was. We started having meetings in our churches.

Muriel was something. I planned to carry her to church one Sunday and I explained to her that she had to have her hair fixed. It wasn't ironed under that bandana. And she says, "I will do that." But when Sunday come the hair was in the same shape and the blue bandana was tied around her head and she was dressed up nicely and out she went to the church with the hair. Well, it took over the church. The women was lookin' and the men, too. I was trying to figure this out. The women were sayin we're going to have to do something with this child. And I agreed, and one woman said, "Well, she's at your house. You tell her that I'll fix her hair." Louise, she's on the board of supervisors now, used to fix hair at her house. I told Louise, "You tell her you'll fix it for free." She said, "I'll get it done next week." Next week has been thirty or forty some years. Last time I saw Muriel she still has not got her hair fixed.

Unita Blackwell to Charlie Cobb

Copyright © Unita Blackwell & Charlie Cobb. 2008

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