Civil Rights pioneer Unita Blackwell, the first Black woman elected mayor in the state of Mississippi and adviser to six U.S. presidents, died Monday at age 86, after a long battle with dementia, Mississippi Today reports.
Blackwell was elected mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi, in 1976. In 1993, she did not seek re-election, but in 1995, she was elected alderwoman in Mayersville during a special election, the Clarion-Ledger reports. In 1997, she ran for mayor again, won her fifth term, and held that position until 2001. During her lifetime, Blackwell advised Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
“The power to move doesn’t care what the circumstances are, cause nothing goes right for us,” Blackwell said in the 1977 University of Southern Mississippi oral history. “Nothing is set up for me to be the mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi. Nothing has been laid out for me to be that, cause everything was against us, you see. But you learn how to move, no matter what.”
She continued: “And that’s what blows people’s minds, you know. I think that’s what blows the minds of the white people in this country around us because we do have certain kinds of cultures and different characteristics, and they say, ‘Well how do they do it? How did something bloom, just like that?’ you know. But it’s not just like that. It’s because we have been through a process over hundreds of years in this country that makes us move through obstacles. And they didn’t have no idea, this society, what it was creating. It created slavery, but it also created a people that can live through any kind of crap, you know.”
Born a sharecropper in 1933 in Lula, Mississippi, Blackwell went on to serve as project director and field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Mississippi Today reports. She was arrested at least 70 times for trying to register Black Mississippians to vote. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, Blackwell traveled with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation, which included Fannie Lou Hamer, to the Democratic National Convention.
Blackwell was passionate about Mississippi and dedicated to Black people, and spoke about the generations-deep, complicated relationship Black Mississippians have to the land our ancestors bled and toiled over.
“Mississippi, you know, people want to know why we are still here and why do we stay here. But Mississippi is home,” Blackwell said in a 1986 interview with Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s a place where I was born, reared on the land. The land is important to us. It was, it was the mean of the hard work, but it, it made us angry, it made us happy, it made us all these things, you know, but we was connected with the land…We didn’t own the land but, but we worked the land and so everything was tied around this land. And I feel that that’s the reason why I love Mississippi. It’s ours.”
Blackwell died Monday morning at a hospital in Biloxi, her son Jeremiah Blackwell Jr. told Mississippi Today.
Speaking on her legacy, U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said, “I am saddened by the passing of Unita Blackwell. 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,” the Clarion-Ledger reports.
Read more about Unita Blackwell at Mississippi Today.