A Woman's `Lifetimes' of Activism in Pre-Civil Rights Act Days, Unita Blackwell Picked Cotton for $6 a Day; Now She's Mayor Series: Martin Luther King Day '91. THE BLACK EXPERIENCE NOW. Seventh of 10 Articles Appearing Today

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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. …


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