Unita Blackwell ’83 MA, Challenging Injustice

Thursday, October 6, 2016

--Via the UMass Amherst Alumni Association, by Elena Lamontagne

“We should all dare to question. Dare to question political parties, presidents, local and state officials. This country was founded on the right to ask questions,” says Unita Blackwell ’83 MA, ’95 LLD Hon in her autobiography, Barefootin’: lessons from the road to freedom. 

Blackwell’s lifelong commitment to asking questions and challenging injustices was recently honored with a marker along the Mississippi Freedom Trail.  

Born in 1933 on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, Blackwell started working in the cotton fields at the age of six. Her family lived in a small shack with no running water on the edge of the plantation. 

Growing up, Blackwell was referred to as “little fast girl” by her relatives because of her questioning mind and curiosity. But with little prospects in the deeply segregated south, her future was limited to plantation work, like generations before her. 

Those prospects changed in the summer of 1964 as civil rights activists, called Freedom Riders, arrived in her little town of Mayersville. The young college students, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had come to Mississippi to help black people to register to vote. During this era, blacks were prohibited from registering and voting by the use of poll taxes and literacy tests administered by white officials. 

On a hot summer day, full of determination and hope, Blackwell and seven others stood outside the Mayersville courthouse waiting to register. Within minutes, half a dozen white men carrying guns were also outside of the courthouse ready to block them. None of the group was allowed to register but according to Blackwell, “… what happened outside the courthouse that day was the turning point of my life.” 

Blackwell joined the SNCC where, for the first time, she learned about African American history and some of its influential leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and W.E.B. DuBois. She also learned the methods of nonviolent civil disobedience as she worked to encourage other blacks to register to vote. 

Despite many arrests and threats to her life, Blackwell helped form a new political party called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). In July 1964, she was among the MFDP delegates sent to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in a historic challenge to the legitimacy of the official all-white Mississippi delegation. 

The MFDP challenge was voted down but it started a new way of thinking for both blacks and whites in America.  A year later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law aimed at removing barriers preventing blacks from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Fueled by a desire to generate more positive change, Blackwell went on to help form the Mississippi Action for Community Education and worked with the National Council of Negro Women on a national program for funding for home ownership. She was also part of an all-women delegation, coordinated by actress and activist Shirley McLaine, which traveled to the People’s Republic of China to learn about its society and culture.

In 1976, Blackwell’s attention turned back to Mayersville where she was elected the first black female mayor in the state of Mississippi. With no paved streets, fire department or town water system, Blackwell made the bold move to incorporate the town in order to access the federal funding needed to improve the community—a model that was used by many small towns to improve living conditions throughout the Delta region. 

Blackwell’s ever-present desire to continue learning prompted her to apply to the master’s degree program in regional planning at UMass Amherst in 1982.  With only an eighth-grade education and high school equivalency certificate, she was awarded a fellowship through the National Rural Fellows program, which provided funds for disadvantaged adult students to continue their education. 

In Barefootin’, Blackwell says:

The first day on the campus I was walking around in a daze, looking at the old ivy-covered buildings and the new tall ones, and right in the middle of the campus I discovered the library. It was twenty-eight stories high and named after W.E.B. Du Bois! I went inside, and I was struck dumb. I had never seen so many books in one place.  In Mayersville, our library was a bookmobile that came every other week from Yazoo City. When I was growing up, I didn’t have access to a public library. If there was a public library in West Helena, it was only for whites. Our school library was only a few shelves of tattered books. So, whenever I could, I escaped to the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. 

Blackwell received a master’s degree in 1983, followed by an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1995 from UMass Amherst. She returned to campus to lecture and share her story with students as an Alumni Association Bateman Scholar in Residence.  

Blackwell went on to serve twenty years as mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi. The Freedom Trail marker was erected in the heart of the town, which she called home. Her life story continues to inspire new generations to dare to question. 

Details were drawn from Barefootin’: lessons from the road to freedom by Unita Blackwell & JoAnne Pritchard Morris.