Unita Blackwell : MacArthur Genius Award Caps a Creative Political Life

<i> Kay Mills is the author of "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer," to be published in January by NAL/Dutton. She interviewed Blackwell in her home in Mayersville</i>

To reach Mayor Unita Blackwell’s town of Mayersville, you drive 12 miles west out of Rolling Fork, Miss., on a two-lane road through acre after acre of cotton plants and soybeans. People have been leaving this westernmost part of the Mississippi Delta in a steady stream since machines took over planting, weeding and picking the crops. Some towns have disappeared; others are sorry shells of themselves. But in Mayersville, pop. 500, the first buildings you see are trim brick houses, part of the Deer River project financed by the Farmers Home Administration.

For developing this housing, as well as demonstrating creativity in approaching other problems in her hometown and state, Blackwell was recently awarded a $350,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This year, the foundation gave its “genius grants” to 17 women and 16 men, among them other activists, philosophers, poets, photographers and novelists. Blackwell was also cited for going back to school at age 50, to earn a master’s degree in regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

MacArthur Fellowships are designed to free creative people from economic constraints. You don’t apply--you’re nominated. The tall, ebullient mayor, who earns $6,000 in her job, says if she could find whoever nominated her, she’d “hug them so tight.”

Blackwell, 59, the first black woman elected as a mayor in Mississippi, helped in the historic 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge to the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention. In April, she concluded a term as president of the National Conference of Black Mayors, two years that included starting a building fund for a permanent headquarters and leading a delegation of mayors to China.


Divorced, Blackwell is raising her 13-year-old grandson, Jermaine. She plans to set aside some of her fellowship money for his college education. A woman who grew up picking crops and still speaks in the rhythms of the Delta, she says that, although she never had time to develop any hobbies, she likes nothing better now than to go fishing or to take two or three books and go off and read. Her house is on the edge of town, next to a garden plot full of beans, lettuce, kale and onions. Across the street is another small housing development, the Unita Blackwell Estates.

Question: When you became mayor of Mayersville, what was the town like?

Answer: Well, (there) wasn’t any decent housing. The whites had a few houses. We had roads that was not paved;we didn’t have a water system--decent water. We started with getting water, because I started a utility district. You see, all this was going on at the same time. Because I came out of the era of the ‘60s, the Movement, we were used to doing several things at the same time. . . .

We were getting the Mayersville utility district. I became the president. We had some whites on there, but they said it was better if I become the president so that I could get the money, because they felt I knew how to go out and try to find it. Then the issue came up that what were the other things that we needed to do? We needed to be incorporated. . . . So they asked me, would I do it, would I help with it? . . . We were going to start empowering people by incorporating and getting people in office.


Q: What’s the job situation now?

A: Not that much left. That’s one of the problems I guess all of us have. People don’t have the kind of adequate jobs they want, but around us, some of the people are working on farms. Some of the men are working “on the boat,” they call it, which is the U.S. Corps of Engineers. They go out and lay slabs aside of the Mississippi River to keep the river from taking away the land.

Q: And I saw a Bunge Corporation down the road.

A: Yes. That’s a grain bin. That’s where they take a lot of grain. Three or four people work over there. They take in the soybeans for the river, because the barges come down the river to pick them up.


Issaquena (County) used to be a booming place, way back in the first (part of the) 1900s, and now it’s turned into a place where people leave; so you have to try to make a life for the people who are here and the ones who are growing up. . . .

There’s a lot of them leave and go to places like Los Angeles, where their relatives are, looking for better jobs. And it’s not there--it’s not always there. That’s the reason I tell folks that we need to take the small towns and develop those towns and . . . find ways of having jobs in those towns, then they wouldn’t fill up the cities.

Q: When you were talking about water, was it that there wasn’t any water, or people didn’t have clean drinking water?

A: They wanted clean drinking water, and running water. Some people didn’t have water in their houses. There was just a spigot outside. We had a problem of that supply--how it could be adequately looked at and taken care of. There were just some hydrants, and, every once in a while, people could go get a bucket of water.


Q: What did people say they wanted?

A: There was a lot of things happening at the same time. When they incorporated, they said they wanted a water system. They wanted police protection. You wanted everything--the whole list that we make up is services that we never had.

Q: And you never had them because the whites who controlled the area didn’t think people needed them?

A: Not that they didn’t think they needed them. They never put any effort into trying to provide things for the local blacks in the community, and that’s a problem. I think that’s a problem all over--whether you’re in a big city or a small city. Because I was the president of the National Conference of Black Mayors, we heard big-city problems as well as small-city problems, and that climate of certain services (only) in certain areas was everywhere.


Q: So this is something you shared with Los Angeles and Detroit and Atlanta?

A: That’s it--that we didn’t have the services as good for the black community. . . . You will find that it’s a climate of keeping other people down, or keeping all of the money in one area. It’s the same thing with education. The thread runs all the way through.

Q: Housing is another concern. I see apartments across the way, and then they’re some newer houses farther out.

A: These houses right across (the way) were built in 1987. The last ones we just put people in was this year, in the red brick. People came out of shacks and places that you won’t believe.


Q: And you’ve got how many housing units in town now?

A: There’s 20 units (across the street). There’s 16 over to the ones we just did. And then it was 16 before that. . . . . Everybody is reluctant at first. Then you start one and then developers want to come in. So you end up with the white developers--there’s no blacks, you know--that come in to build the houses. Then I have to argue to make sure that blacks get a job. . . .

Q: What’s the secret of your success?

A: Well, I think that I won’t tell what that is. (Smiles). Folks say I need to be paid for it. I think that one of the things we have to do is be persistent. I’ll just come back with that word. And you have to be committed and concerned. There is somehow-to-do-its, and one of these days maybe that’s what I’ll do is spell out how to organize, how to do things.


Q: That’s what you’ll use some of the money--

A: Maybe. To do a pamphlet or a booklet or something on how to, and see--can I give it away or sell it to the government or somebody. I think one of the greatest things is commitment.

Q: When you were the head of the National Conference of Black Mayors, it enabled you to represent the mayors in meetings in China, in Canada. Is there any thing that you bring back from trips to China that helps you in your work here?

A: What helps me in my work here is that, for one thing, when people meet one another, it takes away the feeling of “Who is those folks over yonder?” They talk and they walk--they may speak a different language but they’re human, you know. Sometimes, people say, ‘What did you get out of it?’ They’re talking about monetary stuff. My job, I felt, was not to do business deals. I was doing more of friendship building, so people could learn to talk to one another and feel we could learn to trust one another.


. . . So it helps Mayersville, or any place that you are in, to interact with the people from other countries, because then you feel that expansion of self, and learning to trust other human beings.

Q: What do people need to do to get kids interested in something other than drugs and getting pregnant?

A: I talk to children. They know me when they see me coming. I feel it’s the respect and discipline that you create in a community. You have to deal with the parents a lot. I feel that’s where we need to work at.

. . . They should take charge. And if they don’t know how to take charge, that we need to deal with parenting, learning how to parent. . . . People have always been concerned about their girls getting pregnant, because of that hormone situation, you know. But (the girls) said that the reason they was doing that was because they didn’t have any attention and need to be loved, and so on.


We may have to have some “extra parents” to help out. It used to be in the community--I’m not saying that everything was peachy-dozey and everything 20 years ago--but people used to pay more attention to the kids. If one comes here, I say, “Have you got your lessons today?"--that kind of thing. You had people who had more interest.

One of the things I feel I’ve done for children in my area is for them to grow up in a decent house, have decent, adequate housing and good water.

Q: All of what you’ve done here stems from the civil-rights movement and your involvement in it, which, I understand, started about 1963 or 1964, when the first civil-rights workers came here. Were you involved before they came?

A: I think that all my life I’ve been concerned about people, and about myself. I thought it was an injustice the way that things was done ‘cause of the color of our skin. I think that opportunities came along at different times for me to express that.


(You do) whatever is necessary at the time to expand what my mother always said was something deep inside of me that always was concerned about what happened to myself and what happened to other people. I’ve had problems accepting some of the things in my life. I guess I was sensitive to the injustices that was done toward me as a black person. So I went through a period of feeling anger and hate and then, only by the grace of God, you know, some of that changed.

Q: How did you work out of that anger?

A: I guess it’s not something that you do overnight. It’s something that you work at. I give part of it to a lot of self-development, along with understanding who I am and what I am. We hadn’t been taught a lot of things, you know, who we were. And I give the other to Jesus. I’m a Christian, and that’s what I feel has gotten me through. I was just angry, and I vented it out.

And I think that’s a whole lot of the thing that’s happening in towns and cities. People are angry--self-hate, low self-esteem. That may be a junk word by now, but it’s because they didn’t feel good about themselves. It’s not just black people; we always felt that we was pushed back--then when I got into white society and they started talking about that, they felt like poor white trash. You just get to learning more and more so you sort of work yourself through it, and you say I’m not in this alone.


I know now if I don’t have to worry about getting my bills paid, I may really think through some of this--of saying to people: “What is it that you’re doing?"--because the majority of society has not ever made an effort to get up and really get rid of poverty. Really made an effort in their community to do something as a whole with education--or say to the white children, “Let’s all sit down here and learn that this happened in Africa, Asia--Jemima--or wherever. . . .”