Civil rights activist Unita Blackwell, the first Black woman to become mayor in Mississippi, has died at age 86. Her son, Jeremiah Blackwell Jr., announced her death on Monday. She passed away at Ocean Springs Hospital in Biloxi after years of suffering from dementia.
Blackwell was a native of Lula, Mississippi born to sharecroppers in 1933. She entered politics and played an instrumental role in the civil rights movement during the 1960s when she became a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was one of the pioneers who protested Blacks’ exclusion from voting in regular Democratic primaries in the state. Blackwell also served as a project director and field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), helping organize voter drives for African Americans across Mississippi.
“I was put into the position of learning to survive, someway and somehow, by being Black and in this country,” Blackwell said in a 1977 oral history interview with the University of Southern Mississippi. “But also being Black and in this country, you learn a great lesson, and this is how to overcome… It’s that power to move in the midst of opposition.”
Unita Blackwell was instrumental in securing the charter for Mayersville, Mississippi in 1976. She went on to become its first mayor in the same year.
From 1976 to 2001, Blackwell was mayor of Mayersville, a town of about 500. She received a MacArthur Fellowship genius grant in 1992 for her work on housing and water services.
She served as the town’s executive until 1993. Blackwell returned to Mayersville politics in 1995, winning a special election for alderwoman. In 1997, she won her fifth term as mayor.
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 beloved politician served under six presidential administrations under Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.