A Woman's `Lifetimes' of Activism

In pre-Civil Rights Act days, Unita Blackwell picked cotton for $6 a day; now she's mayor

WHEN Unita Blackwell went to register to vote in this tiny cotton-producing town along the banks of the Mississippi in 1965, the court house was ringed with trucks with rifle racks. The drivers glared at her with what looked like hate, she says. ``When I registered, I was cursed out, my life was threatened, I was shot at, and jailed,'' she recalls. ``The [Ku Klux] Klan burned a cross on my front lawn and a large one on the levee so the whole town could see.''

That galvanized her into, as she puts it, ``several lifetimes'' of activism to improve conditions of poor blacks in Mississippi. Fourteen years ago, she became the state's first female black mayor; today she's president of the National Conference of Black Mayors. She's also traveled the world.

On the eve of the Civil War, Issiqueena County - where Mayersville is located - was rich. It had big plantations and a substantial number of slaves. Now it's one of the state's poorest, with neither a hospital nor a school. Standing on the levee that towers over Mayersville, Mrs. Blackwell surveys her town. It's still poor, with its crumbling wooden houses, broken cars, and unpaved roads. But it's come a long way from the pre-Civil Rights Act days of the early '60s. Back then, she was a young mother who picked cotton for $6 a day.

Life started to change during the ``Freedom Summer'' of 1964: Black and white college students, members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), came South to register blacks after the Civil Rights Act reaffirmed their right to vote. Two SNCC members came into her church in Mayersville while Blackwell was teaching Sunday School. One overheard her teaching, and when he made his pitch to the congregation, he said: ``It's just like that teacher in the back said: `God helps those who help themselves.'''

For Blackwell, that remark was a turning point. She helped organize caucuses and precincts, and went with the newly created Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the Democratic National Convention in 1964 to challenge the seating of the Mississippi delegation because it excluded blacks.

``We were supposed to be jailed the day we got back to Mississippi'' from Atlantic City, N.J., she says. ``Those were the kinds of fears you lived with daily.

``Out of that came the need to form an organization to develop local leadership after the SNCC workers went home. We had to find out what local officials did, because they had never done anything for us,'' she says. Because of her activism, she was blacklisted from jobs. Blacks couldn't get welfare in Mississippi then. She couldn't get credit until 1976.

``We had a garden; people would give us a pot of beans,'' she says. ``SNCC was supposed to send us $11 every two weeks. My husband worked three months of the year for the [Army] Corps of Engineers, then we'd buy lots of canned goods. That's how you lived.''

`These people were daring'

Meeting blacks from the North was an eye-opener: ``These people were daring. They were free!'' she says. So was meeting Northern whites. ``I thought, `Why are these white people acting like this and the ones here aren't?'''

Blackwell's horizons began to broaden beyond Mayersville. She helped get public housing built in 1967, including 200 units in Gulfport, Miss., and similar developments around the state.

In 1967, she co-founded Mississippi Action Community Education (MACE), a community development organization. MACE filed class-action lawsuits against towns to bring municipal services like water and sewer systems, fire departments, paved streets, curbs, street lights, and telephones to blacks in those towns. They also helped unincorporated areas incorporate as towns so they could get those services, then leveraged federal and state dollars for additional services.

After she helped incorporate her town, ``somebody nominated me for mayor, somebody else seconded it, and I've been mayor ever since,'' she says. Town hall used to be in her living room. Then she got a trailer. Then she got a farmer to let them use a house, and got a grant to fix it up.

After she was elected, she joined the National Conference of Black Mayors (then called the Southern Conference of Black Mayors) because ``I needed help learning how to be a mayor,'' she explains. The organization grew from 3 mayors to 326 in 17 years.

Civil rights activists took over the Greenville Air Force base to demonstrate the need for food stamps and housing. Many blacks had been displaced from farms because of mechanization or for their civil rights activities. Now food stamps and welfare payments are part of the economic base of the state.

Making change in Mississippi is still ``a daily thing,'' Blackwell says. Her town of 500 now has street lights, water and sewer systems, telephones, and curbs, but getting them took a lot of time and lawsuits. And due to a lack of funds, the town hall is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

It wasn't until 1987 that the first public housing was built in Mayersville. Blackwell lives in a three-bedroom brick house next door to the wooden shack that was her home for many years. There's a paved road in front of her house, though that only appeared a few years ago. ``It was blood, sweat, and tears to get streets,'' she says.

Meeting a young actress

``Things are so much better now,'' she continues. ``There has been no shooting or killing lately.'' But since the community started from zero, they're barely halfway to where they want to be, she says. The racism may not be as overt as in the past, but it's still present in the area's lack of economic development, she says. And economic development is difficult, she recognizes, because of the lack of skilled workers in the state for new, higher-skilled jobs.

During the organizing, her life took another twist. A young actress from the North came to Mayersville with the SNCC students. Her name was Shirley MacLaine, and she and Blackwell hit it off. When Ms. MacLaine called Blackwell to come to China as part of a women's delegation to improve relations with that country in 1976, she jumped at the opportunity, and has gone back to China every chance she's had. She's been national president of the U.S.-China People's Friendship Association for seven years.

Looking at her prized copy of Alex Haley's ``Roots'' in Chinese that she received on one of her trips, she muses: ``Sometimes I wonder, ``Did I start all of this?'' When I look at my life, I couldn't have imagined any of this.''

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