Unita Blackwell, Civil Rights Activist and First Black Woman Elected Mayor In Mississippi, Dies at 86

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Unita Blackwell spent her life fighting for civil rights of Black Mississippians and decades after her last crusade, she has died at age 86.

Cynthia Goodloe Palmer, executive director of Mississippi Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, confirmed the news of Blackwell’s death at Ocean Springs Hospital to the Associated Press after receiving word from the activist’s son Jeremiah Blackwell Jr. He told CNN his mother died Monday, May 13 of a buildup of fluid in her heart and lungs following a long fight with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Unita Blackwell
Unita Blackwell, 1st African American female mayor in Mississippi, 1992.

Blackwell was born in 1933 to sharecroppers in the tiny Mississippi Delta town of Lula, as she discussed in oral history interviews she gave to the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage.

The future activist attended school until she was 12-years-old and dropped out to become a sharecropper, according to the AP. But once the Freedom Riders arrived in the spring of 1964, Blackwell’s focus shifted. She became a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, effectively joining the civil rights movement. In that role, she and seven other activists went to the Issaquena County courthouse to register to vote.

“We showed up, and Miss [Mary T.] Vandevender that serves on my board now, as my board of alderman woman, was shocked when we came in to her office, and she was just flustered, because she didn’t know what to do, with these black folks in here, talking about they wanted to vote,” she recalled in her oral history.

However, the effort was unsuccessful because the tests were rigged for Black residents not to pass.

Blackwell continued her civil rights pursuits in the years that followed. She an others filed a lawsuit against Issaquena schools in 1965 and desegregation came a few years later, CNN reported.

Following the passing of the Civil Rights Act, Blackwell later became the adviser or appointee of six presidents, the Clarion-Ledger reported. They include Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

In 1967, the AP reported Blackwell advocated for the improvement of dire conditions in Issaquena County at a hearing in front of U.S. Senators including Democratic New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

“The whole county is poor,” she said, according to the Southern Courier. “We don’t have a factory — nothing but plantations. We have children who have never had a glass of milk.”

A decade later, Blackwell began her 24-year stint at the mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi. Her leadership of to population 500 town made history as she became the first Black woman mayor in the state. She also served as president of the National Conference of Black Mayors from 1990 to 1992.

In the wake of her passing, several organizations and politicians tweeted their condolences.

“We mourn the loss of Ms. Unita Blackwell, true warrior for civil rights & friend & mentor to Marian Wright Edelman. Ms. Blackwell’s legacy in victories for voting rights & as the first Black female mayor in Miss. endure & we’ll continue to share her story,” the Children’s Defense Fund tweeted Monday.

Bennie Thompson, who won against Blackwell in the U.S. House 1993 special election and is current chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, tweeted, “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.”

“Oh #UnitaBlackwell was a brilliant and fierce leader. A role model in every way. #RestInPower,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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