Freedom Trail Marker honoring Unita Blackwell to be unveiled
Jackson, Mississippi — August 22, 2016 — Visit Mississippi will unveil its 22nd Freedom Trail marker honoring Unita Blackwell at 10 a.m. on Friday, August 26, 2016, in Grey Russell Park, Highways 1 and 14 in Mayersville, Mississippi. The marker commemorates Blackwell’s accomplishments as a civil rights era activist who advocated for blacks to pursue the right to vote and as Mississippi’s first black female mayor.
“The Mississippi Freedom Trail is an important asset as we tell Mississippi’s story. Our marked trails give visitors a path to explore as they navigate Mississippi in search of her history. Unita Blackwell was an advocate for civil rights not only in Mississippi but across the United States, and we are honored to commemorate her contribution with a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker,” said Visit Mississippi Director Craig Ray.
Born “U.Z.” Brown in Lula, Miss., in 1933, she soon moved with her mother from Lula to Memphis and then to West Helena, Arkansas. There, a teacher encouraged her to make speeches in the school assembly and told her she needed a real name, as “U.Z.” was not suitable for a person with such potential. Together they chose Unita Zelma. She later married Jeremiah Blackwell of Mayersville, and they had one child, Jeremiah Blackwell, Jr.
In 1964, Blackwell tried to register to vote, but the local courthouse turned her away. Soon thereafter, she became a field representative for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the first of many organizations she would join to advocate for civil rights. She faced backlash from the white community but pressed on in encouraging black Mississippians to pursue their right to vote.
In 1965, she testified before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission about her difficulties in registering to vote. In June of that year, she was one of 482 arrested for taking part in a march to protest a special session of the Mississippi legislature bent on avoiding the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. The protesters were jailed in livestock barns at the state fairgrounds, where many were beaten and otherwise abused.
Blackwell was instrumental in the creation of Mississippi Action for Community Education and the Head Start program in 1967. She traveled the state and the nation as a National Council of Negro Women community organizer from 1967 to 1975. After Blackwell’s decade-long activism in voter registration, education and other civil rights issues, she won the election for mayor of Mayersville in 1976, a position she served in until 2001. Shortly after she won the mayoral election, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to his Presidential Advisory Committee, and she initiated work on mobilizing the Delta behind Governor William Winter’s education bill.
Later in life, Blackwell became a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She received a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, four other honorary doctorates and won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
The Mississippi Freedom Trail was launched in 2011. It commemorates the people, places, and events of the civil rights movement. For more information, contact Visit Mississippi’s Tourism Development Bureau Manager, Mary Margaret Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 601-359-5750 or visit www.visitmississippi.org.
Photo inset: William Patrick Butler