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. …