Blackwell Collage by Sarah Hairston
Mayor Unita Blackwell was Mississippi’s first Black female mayor, and she represents a generational effort by Black Mississippians to defy 200 years of un-democratic government and shape Mississippi into a true democracy.
Two centuries after this nation declared independence for everyone wealthy, white, and male, Blackwell and her brave community defied white terrorists, as well as cross-burnings, beatings, and murder. Working with the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) members and hundreds of determined people willing to risk their lives, Blackwell and her community insisted on their right to vote, and they beat back countless efforts to tamp down Black representation in state politics. In so doing, the majority-Black community of her Mayersville home eventually earned a Black sheriff who would bode no Klan activity, and county representatives who took an active hand in promoting democracy and working for all residents, not just the white ones.
Coached by out of state Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members and others, Blackwell joined Black citizens at the doors of the Issaquena County courthouse to register to vote, knowing full well that, unlike SNCC members, they could not flee to safe homes out of state. They would have to continue to live here with racist terrorists who wanted them dead.
After successfully winning her right to vote, she and other residents joined civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer in founding the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, to delegitimize and usurp the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party at the party’s 1964 convention in Atlantic City. That effort led to the reformation of the National Democratic Party, which had no choice but to finally recognize the state party’s rampant bigotry before millions of nightly news viewers.
Achieving that, Blackwell went on to sue Issaquena County school districts over its stubborn segregationist behavior and racist policies toward Black students. Later she led Mayersville’s effort to incorporate into a city, and then ran and won a seat as mayor, following other notable Black figures who’d already captured county supervisor seats, constable offices and law enforcement positions.
As mayor, Blackwell became a champion of municipal development, drawing down federal dollars and programs to pave city streets, build public housing and upgrade the city’s sewer system from unsanitary open ditches.
Blackwell came far from her sharecropper roots. She was a champion of democracy, and she remains a supercharged example of what happens when real democracy shows itself and gives real people a voice. The Lighthouse would like to broadcast her legacy on her birthday by including links to interviews Blackwell agreed to conduct over the course of her career.
You can learn more about her life, civil rights work, and legacy here, here and here to see a brave, determined woman doing what needed to be done. And you can celebrate and support Blackwell’s contributions to democracy by checking your voter registration status, and encouraging others to as well, at www.vote.org/am-i-registered-to-vote/