A Woman to Know: Unita Blackwell

I always felt that from the inside, I wanted to do something. — Unita Blackwell

(image via Wikimedia)


Unita never finished high school. She didn't even get to start — after eighth grade, she worked alongside her family of sharecroppers, picking cotton in Mississippi.

But after a group of civil rights activists visited her hometown in 1964, something changed in Unita. She started attending meetings of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and soon she was leading voter registration drives around the state.

"I didn't know anything, absolutely anything until 1964," she said. "The movement gave me life."

In 1976, she became the first-ever black mayor elected in Mississippi. Unita made history several times: as a civil rights activist, as a champion for voter registration, as the founder of the US China People's Friendship Association, and later as a MacArthur Genius grantee.

As the mayor of Mayersville, an old cotton town in the Mississippi Delta, Unita paved roads, built sewers and updated other infrastructure. She brought public housing to the county and toured the country to discuss her work, even befriending Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. She served as mayor of Mayersville until 2001.

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