An outspoken civil rights activist who was born to sharecroppers in the segregated South and rose to become the first African American woman to win a mayor’s race in Mississippi has died.
Unita Blackwell was 86. She died Monday at Ocean Springs Hospital, according to Cynthia Goodloe Palmer, executive director of Mississippi Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, who received the details from Blackwell’s son, Jeremiah Blackwell Jr.
Unita Blackwell was born in the impoverished Mississippi Delta during the Great Depression. She grew up in Mississippi and Arkansas, and left school when she was 12 to work as a farm laborer.
Blackwell became active in the civil rights movement in the Delta in 1964 as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She and other black residents of Issaquena County tried to register to vote that year but were rejected because of a test rigged for them to fail.
In a 1986 interview for the civil rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” Blackwell recalled trying to secure voting rights for African Americans who made up a majority of the Delta’s population but held none of the political power.
“I was only told when I started off that if I registered to vote that I would have food to eat and a better house to stay in, ’cause the one I was staying in was so raggedy you could see anywhere and look outdoors. That I would have, my child would have, a better education,” she said.
“And at that particular point, our children only went to school two to three months out of the year. And for the whites, they understood it even larger than that in terms of political power, and we hadn’t even heard that word, political power, because it wasn’t even taught in the black schools.”
Along with fellow activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Blackwell was part of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation that challenged seating of the state’s all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Blackwell sued the Issaquena County school board in 1965 after 300 students, including her son, were suspended for wearing pins supporting civil rights.
In 1967, a group of U.S. senators that included Democrat Robert F. Kennedy of New York traveled to Mississippi to hold hearings about poverty. During a hearing in Jackson, Blackwell told them about dire conditions in Issaquena County.
“The whole county is poor,” she said, according to a report published in the Southern Courier newspaper. “We don’t have a factory — nothing but plantations. We have children who have never had a glass of milk.”
From 1976 to 2001, Blackwell was mayor of Mayersville, a town of about 500. She developed a utility district to provide water and sewage services. Under her leadership, the town also paved streets and worked to improve housing.
With a high school equivalency diploma and financial support from a rural fellowship, she was accepted in 1982 into a regional planning program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She completed her master’s degree there in 1983.
Blackwell was president of the National Conference of Black Mayors from 1990 to 1992. She was a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1991 and 1992.
She received a $350,000 MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 1992 for her work on housing and water services.
Blackwell ran for the U.S. House in a 1993 special election, losing to fellow Democrat Bennie Thompson, who still holds the seat and chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. Thompson praised Blackwell on Twitter, writing: “She dedicated her life to fighting for civil rights in Mississippi. We are forever grateful for her work and sacrifice. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and all those who loved her.”