Civil rights activist Unita Blackwell made history in 1976, becoming Mississippi’s first black female mayor. She died on Monday at age 86.
Unita Blackwell may have been born into humble beginnings on March 18, 1933, but her activism and courage helped change the course of history for African-Americans.
Her son, Jeremiah Blackwell Jr., told CNN his mother died from a buildup of fluid in her heart and lungs, after a lengthy battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Blackwell was the first black female mayor in Mississippi, elected as mayor of Mayersville 12 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As an active member in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Blackwell helped African-Americans register to vote.
Taking a bus from Mississippi to Atlantic City, New Jersey, she was part of the group that pressured the 1964 Democratic National Convention not to accept the all-white delegation from her state.
And throughout her civil right activism, Blackwell went to jail repeatedly for the cause.
After the Civil Rights Act passed, the Clarion-Ledger reported, the activist and politician went onto advise six US presidents: Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Humble beginnings as a family of sharecroppers
Much of Blackwell’s history is preserved through oral history interviews she gave to the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage. To read Blackwell’s full oral history, click here.
In those interviews, she talked about her family’s life as sharecroppers in the small Mississippi Delta town, Lula, where she was born.
Blackwell’s mother was illiterate; she was determined that her children would be educated. Because she wasn’t allowed to go to school in Mississippi, she went to live with a relative, “Aunt Big Eighty,” in West Helena, Arkansas.
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