Unita Zelma Blackwell was born on a plantation in Lula, Mississippi, where her parents picked cotton. The same life awaited her; there were few other options for a Black child in the Delta. At fourteen she quit school to work in the fields. “Life was just a matter of surviving.” Yet something made her think there was more: a conviction that “something is wrong with this world we live in.” In 1957, following the birth of her son, she fell into a coma. As she hovered on the side of death, she felt God speak to her: “You shall not die. You has work to do.” She recovered and set out on “a process of looking” for her deeper purpose.
The turning point came in 1964 when organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to her town and talked about registering to vote. She responded to the call, crossing a line of armed white men at the courthouse. She lost her job, but she had crossed to the other side: “Overnight, I went from field hand to full-time freedom fighter.”
Blackwell became an organizer for SNCC, participating in countless marches and demonstrations. She was arrested over seventy times and was once held for eleven days with 1,100 demonstrators in a livestock pen, sleeping on the concrete floor, subjected to abusive strip searches. “I don’t think most people today . . . have any idea of the price that ordinary Black Mississippians have paid,” she said.
In 1976 she was elected mayor of her town, Mayersville, becoming the first African American woman mayor in Mississippi. She died on May 13, 2019.
“I was fearful; I was scared, but . . . I kept going anyway. . .. I say, ‘Well, Lord, if I die, I’m going to die trying; I’m going to die fighting for freedom.’” —Unita Zelma Blackwell