If you are a poor Black woman born in the Mississippi Delta, you have three strikes against you, and chances are you’ll end up where you started. This was the hand fate dealt U.Z. Brown, but she changed her name and while singing “We Shall Overcome” she managed to transcend her awful beginnings. In effect, Unita Blackwell, the name that would bring her iconic recognition, and earn her lasting fame as a champion of civil rights.
Born U.Z. Brown on March 18, 1933, in Lula, Miss., to sharecropper parents, her name, given to her by her uncle, was changed by the time she was in the sixth grade when a teacher told her she needed a real name, not initials. The U.Z. was changed to Unita Zelma.
Adding tragically to her early years was the death of her grandfather who was killed by a white plantation boss. She was three years old when the family left Mississippi for Memphis, Tenn., after her father confronted his boss about speaking to his wife. Searching for whatever work they could find, her parents eventually separated mainly due to religious differences. This split left Unita and her mother to fend for themselves and they later settled in West Helena, Ark., where they lived with her great aunt.
The relocation gave Unita an opportunity to attend school much more than the restrictions imposed on children in Mississippi. Although she lived in Arkansas, Unita still found time to visit her father in Memphis and her grandparents in Lula. During the summer months in Lula most of her time was spent chopping cotton, earning $3 a day. Besides picking cotton in several states, she also peeled tomatoes in Florida. By the time she was 14 she finished the eighth grade and that was the extent of her early formal education.
Unita was 25 when she met and later married Jeremiah Blackwell, a cook in the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1957, she became extremely ill, and after being hospitalized in West Helena, she was pronounced dead. But somehow later she was found alive and believed she had had a near-death experience.
In 1957, the couple’s only son, Jeremiah Blackwell Jr., was born and by then they had moved into her grandmother’s house after her death. The house was in Mayersville, Miss., and she kept the house because “it reminded me of where I came from,” she said. It was here that she got her baptismal in the Civil Rights Movement.
Seven years later, after meeting Fannie Lou Hamer and learning of her courageous acts, Unita decided to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was soon in charge of voter registration campaigns in Mississippi. Subsequently, she became a member of the executive committee of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and a delegate to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Many Americans remember this event for the bold stance of the African-American delegates and Hamer’s fiery speech, and unflinching leadership.
Back home from the convention, Unita spearheaded a Head Start program for children. In the late 1960s she worked as a community development specialist with the National Council of Negro Women. Out of this involvement she became an essential worker in a program to assist people to build their own homes. Even so, this did not interfere with her civil rights activism which often found her behind bars; in fact, she was arrested more than 70 times for her activism.
Her name was on a lawsuit filed against the Issaquena County Board of Education after the principal suspended more than 300 Black children, including Unita’s son, for wearing pins that depicted a black hand and white hand clasped with the letters “SNCC” below them. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi ruled that the wearing of pins was disruptive but also that schools had to desegregate in order to comply with the federal law. This was one of the very first desegregation cases in Mississippi.
This was not the end of the matter, however, because Unita’s son and about 50 other children boycotted the school upon being denied the wearing of the pins. Given the resistance of the school system, Unita and other SNCC members decided to open freedom schools. For several years the freedom schools existed and only came to an end after the local schools were finally desegregated.
Always interested in learning more and traveling, Unita was part of a delegation that participated in numerous trips to China, including one with actress Shirley MacLaine that culminated in the 1973 film “The Other Half of the Sky.” For six years Unita was president of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association. In 1979, she was appointed to the U.S. National Commission on the International Year of the Child. Three years prior she was elected mayor of Mayersville, Miss. She was the state’s first African-American mayor and held the office until 2001.
Her accomplishments as mayor were phenomenal and touched practically every facet of the city, enabling the elderly, children, and greatly improving the city’s infrastructure, particularly affordable and low-income housing and paved streets.
In 1982, she attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and received a Master of Regional Planning, just one of the many honors and awards she accumulated. Many Americans learned of her civil rights involvement from Henry Hampton’s “Eyes on the Prize,” and from her autobiography, “Barefootin’: Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom.” Or they heard of her from being awarded a $350,000 MacArthur Fellowship grant in 1992.
One of the unfortunate circumstances that brought her news coverage occurred in 2008 when she vanished from her hotel in Atlanta and was later found at the city’s airport. The incident was early signs of dementia and by 2014 she was living in a nursing home.
For a Black woman with such an inauspicious beginning, Unita acquired an astonishing record of achievements, and one thing is certain after her death on May 13, 2019, in Ocean Springs, Miss., her legacy is secure.