During the summer of 2008, I visited Mississippi for the first time. It was my first time being away from home and also my first time staying on a historically black college campus. I was 15 years old when I heard about women in the civil rights movement, outside of Rosa Parks. Black women such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Unita Blackwell were unfamiliar names I didn’t see in my history books or hear taught in school. After being informed of both of their contributions toward the Civil Rights Movement, I knew a name like Unita Blackwell was one to remember, just like many other hidden civil rights activists who fought for rights for those in their communities.
I had the chance to meet Unita Blackwell that summer as well as receive a signed copy of her book “Barefootin.’” I was probably the 40th girl in a line of 55 waiting to get my book signed. I wasn’t anxious, but I was looking forward to seeing her. I didn’t realize how meaningful that moment was with her. She sat in a chair, smiled, asked each girl her name and signed the book.
Blackwell was pivotal to the voting rights movement in Mississippi. She was a project director for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped organize voter drives for Black people across Mississippi, and she also was the first Black woman to be elected mayor in Mayersville, Miss, or any city in Mississippi for that matter. She was Black and a woman in Mississippi during the civil rights movement, and I admire the courage and resilience she showed throughout her life.
One of the many things I appreciate about Blackwell is loyalty and dedication she had to Mississippi. In her book “Barefootin,’” Blackwell was able to travel to Europe, China, Africa and Latin America, with opportunities to live and work in those places, but she always returned Mississippi. Blackwell illustrated the need to have roots and wings. She stated in her book, “I stayed here because I love this place and the people that live here.”
She valued her commitment to the cause and had passion for her community. Blackwell understood how valuable and strong a small community in Mississippi could be. She remained humble throughout her work while enacting record making changes, she continued to do good in the world for others.
As we recently celebrated Blackwell’s birthday, I’m inspired by her lesson of freedom. “When you’re on the road to freedom, you eventually have to free those who were opposed to you. By freeing others, you free yourself. To be free we have to take control of our own lives and become responsible for ourselves, not rely on other people to take care of us; we have to become productive.”
I believe we put limits on our freedom in how we view it; it goes deeper than the physical. Freedom can be attainable in all aspects, and just like power, it comes with great responsibility.
Thank you Ms. Unita for being inspirational to all Black girls and women, challenging us to dare to achieve. We celebrate your legacy, and we are filled with the spirit of “Barefootin.’” Happy Birthday to the honorable Unita Blackwell. May you forever rest in power.