Celebrating Unita Blackwell

At The Lighthouse, we observe Ms. Unita Blackwell’s birthday as a day of rest and reflection. This original artwork of Unita Blackwell and her home in Mayersville, Miss. is a signed, limited edition print by Jeffrey Yentz, and is available for purchase.

Our office was abuzz Monday, February 17. You may have been at home, catching up on sleep, a little cleaning, watching “The Price is Right.” It was President’s Day, but the staff here worked. It’s a holiday I don’t value enough to not be productive. I would imagine, though, on March 20, you may be at work, but we won’t. It’s the day I’ve chosen for The Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects to observe Unita Blackwell’s birthday. Blackwell is a woman I grew to admire deeply over the years, but it took far too long. 

When the lights shut off and it’s my turn to settle down / my main concern / promise that you will sing about me / promise that you will sing about me

“Remember that time she said, ‘Listen to me! I’m your history’?” remarked one of the mentors in the program I was directing at the time. One night, a group of us sat in the dorm’s lobby. All the program participants were settled for the evening—we hoped—and we were talking, long past any reasonable hour, considering the time we had to be up the next morning. The topic of conversation skipped about, one box to another, like a girl’s feet during a game of hopscotch. We’d found our way to discussing Unita Blackwell, for whom the program was named. Just about all the mentors had at least met her, if not spent significant time around her. I, however, had not.

When I first learned about Unita Blackwell, I was working at a newspaper and her autobiography, “Barefootin’: Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom,” was about to come out. Joanne Pritchard Morris, the book’s coauthor, was at the office dancing about. There was going to be a reading that day at the local bookstore. I went back to my office and closed the door. I had things to do. I always had things to do. While everyone else left for the event, I stayed behind to finish my to-do list. That’s one of the many things I regret about my time there: I lost what was, in hindsight, my only opportunity to meet The Honorable Unita Blackwell.

What a pity. What’s more pitiful is I’d never heard of her before then.

I took Mississippi History in 10th grade with Mrs. Bonnie Feig. She was a cool, old, white lady from Wisconsin who often talked about cheese and milk. Some of my classmates thought she was a little strange and talked funny, but I loved her. In the Mississippi History class, we talked a lot about people I didn’t know and had never heard of. Ross Barnett used to be the governor, “might” have been racist (which means he was) and there’s a reservoir named for him. Mississippi means “great river” and there were a few other random facts and a couple corny songs.

“Mrs. Feig? Where are the Black people in our book?” I asked one day in front of the class after she acknowledged my raised hand.

I don’t know what had gotten into me. Back then I wasn’t known for bucking the system … at least not in front of a crowd.

Mrs. Feig looked at me, paused then said, “I don’t know, Natalie. Where are they?”

She didn’t ask this question flippantly or with any dismissiveness. It was a sincere question. After class, she asked me to chat with her and offered me an opportunity to find the Black people in Mississippi history and make a presentation to the folks in my class about them. I talked to my family and even thumbed through encyclopedias searching for Black Mississippians. I didn’t find much in the books, and no mention then of Unita Blackwell.

One of the things I was guilty of back then when I listened to my family’s stories about Black Mississippians was not realizing the characters were actual people. Though Fannie Lou Hamer was bold and outspoken with her personal and political convictions, she was also a wife who wanted children but was never able to bear them naturally. I didn’t think about her cooking dinner or choosing the perfect dress to wear. I only thought about her speaking her truth plainly in 1964 before crowds of people who didn’t want to hear it, representing the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, which her friend Blackwell had helped found.

A part of Blackwell’s story is that what she was doing wasn’t extraordinary to her. In “Barefootin’,” she writes, “Movements are not radical. Movements are the American way. A small group of abolitionists writing and speaking eventually led to the end of slavery. A few stirred-up women brought about women’s voting. The Populist movement, the Progressive movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement — the examples go on and on of ‘little people’ getting together and telling the truth about their lives. They made our government act.”

As she drove around Mayersville, one of the few women, nay, Black people at all—who owned a car in the late 1950s, the not-so simple act made a statement: I have freedom, even if you think I don’t.

This sense of freedom showed up, perhaps even to the slowfulness of her husband, Jeremiah. It’s also what propelled first them and eventually her, even more deeply, into civil and human rights work. She writes:

“When I started to jump up and volunteer [to register to vote], my husband pulled on my dress and said, ‘Don’t stand up till I stand up.’ He wasn’t trying to restrain me or control me; he wanted to present a united front to the eyes of the other church members. I sat there a minute or two longer waiting for Jeremiah to stand up, and he wasn’t getting up, so I just gave him a jigging in his side with my elbow. He got up, and I got up.

I’ve been standing up ever since.”

I said when the lights shut off and it’s my turn to settle down / my main concern / promise that you will sing about me / promise that you will sing about me

Thanks to a job offer I knew was for me before I even interviewed, a few years after my missed encounter, I found myself leading a program named for Blackwell. By this time, though, her memory was failing her, and she’d been moved to a senior care facility. But everyone with whom I worked had stories to tell about her, as they’d all worked with her one-on-one—as caretakers or community organizers. While I didn’t discover her during Mrs. Feig’s Mississippi History class, I inhaled those stories like the thick, hot oxygen the young women and I breathed during the summer sessions at Tougaloo College, walking from one end of campus to the other.

James Baldwin said in a speech in 1963 titled “The Negro Child- His Self Image”:

“… I knew enough about life by this time to understand that whatever you invent, whatever you project, is you! So where we are now is that a whole country of people believe I’m a ‘nigger,’ and I don’t, and the battle’s on! Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis.”

What happens when we consider the crisis— the people themselves in the stories I heard, you’ve heard, about movement giants? They aren’t fables that come from people’s imaginations. They’re accounts of real people. Daughters, mothers. Sisters, wives. These giants, like Blackwell, had friends and were friends themselves. Fannie Lou Hamer, for example, and Blackwell, were friends, real friends who commiserated, laughed and struggled together.

When we strip movement builders and sustainers of their humanity, when we forget they’re not just characters in stories, we cheat them and ourselves. We imagine them to be larger than life, when truth is, their lives were large but not any more significant than ours. And many of us set ourselves up to always chase an unattainable goal: be someone we’re not supposed to be.

That’s one of the things I love about Unita Blackwell. From all accounts I’ve ever heard (from the ones at work to the celebration of her life in May 2019 to the ones I read), she seemed to never not be herself. That authenticity—a hallmark of leadership—got her named one of the project directors of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, elected six times as mayor of Mayersville, Miss. (the first time was historical, as no Black woman in the state had been elected mayor before so six times?!), procured federal money to pave the streets in Mayersville, build a public water system and give the town police and fire protection, and named a MacArthur Fellow for her work. And all of this was just part of what she did to build stronger communities.

Blackwell’s forward thinking and progressive actions were never too far from reminders of where she’d come from. Real leaders are grounded like that—lofty with their ideas and plans, always close to the struggles that birthed them. When she fought to get a USDA home loan to build a brick home for her family (only white people lived in brick homes in Mayersville in the ‘60s and ‘70s), she chose to put it directly in front of the three-room shotgun house she and her husband moved into in 1957. Both, though vulnerable to the elements from lack of upkeep, still stand.

Ms. Unita’s familial relationships were eventually jeopardized. As her light shone brighter, Jeremiah, her first husband, grew resentful, though I don’t know that either of them would characterize it as such. Civil rights workers sought out Unita’s advice and not the couple’s guidance or presence. By the time Blackwell had been arrested some 70 times, finished her terms as mayor, lost a run for U.S. Congress and founded the US China Peoples Friendship Association, she and Jeremiah had divorced and she remarried (once more, though she kept the name; free woman, indeed).

“Although a job gave me a lot of satisfaction, and I felt confident and capable and productive, I carried my personal unrest with me,” she writes in “Barefootin.” “So I tried to drown the turmoil and fill the void by drinking whiskey and partying. Since I’m not a person who can drink just a little bit, that only made matters worse, both at work and at home. I decided to free myself from alcohol and marriage both in 1971. … I was discovering that freedom has many layers, like an onion or a cabbage head, and becoming free is an ongoing process of peeling them off, one by one.”

When Jackson Mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba stood to give remarks at Blackwell’s funeral, he acknowledged Jerry, the mayor’s son, as a child of the movement. “I see you too, brother,” he said. “I know what it’s like to share your parents with the movement.” 

Sometimes I look in a mirror and ask myself / am I really scared of passing away / if it’s today I hope I hear a / cry out from Heaven so loud it can water down a demon / with the Holy Ghost ’til it drown in the blood of Jesus

Everyone can’t know everyone. There will be figures in history we miss. But every figure has a story and every story is connected to human beings who live lives much fuller than the extraordinary (or ordinary) things they’ve done. While she did extraordinary things, Unita Blackwell, a girl from Lula, Mississippi, was an ordinary woman. She wouldn’t have been offended by that. I know it, because of her own account.

We spend so much of our time looking for opportunities to enact change. What do we sacrifice intentionally or unintentionally for the greater good? What balance do we need to find, and what’s worth the sacrifice? What do you stand for? Not just in principle, but deep in your core? What do your beliefs say about you and the communities you live in and love? For us, we believe in the power of space and time, so much so that we ache to create spaces of safety and solidarity for Black girls and women in search of their freedom. And on March 20, two days after her actual birthday, The Lighthouse staff and I will observe her birthday. I, like she did, am peeling back the layers of my freedom, making my own rules. I think that’s a part of the way Ms. Unita defined barefootin’.

D Italicized, bold inserts are excerpts from Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me.”

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