May 17 marked the 65th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. While the brilliant legal strategies of Black Civil Rights attorneys such as Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall receive most of the attention, the Black parents and community leaders who mobilized to advance educational opportunities for Black children should also be commemorated. One such grassroots activist, Unita Zelma Blackwell, passed away quietly on May 13. The celebrated Mississippi freedom fighter had a long history of challenging white power structures to improve Black life.
U.Z. Brown was born to Willie and Virda Mae Brown on March 18, 1933 in a sharecropper’s shack in the Mississippi Delta. The initials U.Z. did not stand for anything until many years later, when a school teacher insisted that the young girl needed a “real name” and thus Unita Zelma Brown came to be. At age 5, Unita and her mother moved to West Helena, Arkansas for better educational opportunities. Both the school term and Unita’s life, however, revolved around cotton. She began working in the cotton fields at age 6 and was picking 200 pounds a day by the time she was 12. Like many Black southerners, Unita and her family worked and lived on land that they did not own. Although money was in short supply, the family drew on internal resources, including grit, hard work, and perseverance.
Unita’s formal schooling ended shortly after she received her new name, as West Helena’s school for Black children only went through the eighth grade and her family could not afford to send her elsewhere to continue her education. Yet white supremacy’s stunting of her educational career later served as the impetus to advocate on behalf of Black children. Unita worked odd jobs, including cleaning white homes and chopping cotton. Jeremiah Blackwell, a young Black man from the Mississippi Delta who worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers, caught Unita’s eye and the two married in the 1950s. The couple had one child, Jeremiah Blackwell, Jr., and settled in Mayersville, Mississippi, where Jeremiah’s family had owned land since Reconstruction.
Unita Blackwell’s introduction to the Black freedom struggle occurred in Moon Lake Missionary Baptist Church where two Black college student volunteers visited to discuss voting in 1964. Only 6.7 percent of voting-age Black Mississippians were registered to vote — dismal numbers which stemmed from voter apathy, white trickery, and unfair procedures designed to dilute Black votes and retain white control over all levels of government in the Magnolia State. At Moon Lake Missionary, Unita learned that the Constitution protected her right to vote and that political power impacted education, housing, and healthcare. Seeking a better educational future for her son, Unita traveled to the courthouse to register to vote where white men with guns prevented her entrance. The white landowner she worked for fired her for simply attempting to exercise her Constitutional right to participate in the electoral process.
Although Unita was served lemons, she made lemonade. She never worked in a cotton field again. Instead, she joined the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as a field representative. Her house became a hub for Civil Rights volunteers, and in 1964, she helped to oversee Issaquena County’s Freedom Summer — a statewide campaign led by Civil Rights groups to end Black disenfranchisement in Mississippi and cultivate the locals’ leadership skills. The summer initiative culminated with the interracial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenging the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Blackwell served as an MFDP convention delegate alongside Fannie Lou Hamer and Aaron Henry.
Long after Freedom Summer, Unita continued to mobilize and organize for full freedom. Education became her next avenue for protest, as she transformed a federal preschool program into an opportunity to better herself and her community.
The Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) was one of the largest inaugural Head Start programs in the country. When it began in 1965, Unita made Black parents aware of its availability through door-to-door efforts to register eligible children and help Black parents to secure employment opportunities in Head Start centers. CDGM uniquely placed working-class Black women in leadership positions, who then taught young pupils how to assertively question the status quo. CDGM’s empowerment of Black children and employment of ordinary Black Mississippians with movement credentials precipitated large-scale white resistance and led to federal government defunding efforts. In turn, Unita traveled to Washington, DC to lobby for CDGM’s continuation. She negotiated face-to-face with Office of Economic Opportunity Director Sargent Shriver and various senators.
Unita fought many battles in the educational arena. For example, when the Black principal of her son’s school suspended 300 students in the school district for wearing SNCC buttons, she called Jackson-based NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Marian Wright to inquire about how to resist the policy which prohibited political buttons. Unita sued the school board, and the case became known as Blackwell v. Issaquena County Board of Education. A federal judge upheld the principal’s decision to ban the SNCC pins and, more importantly, ruled that Black students in Issaquena County could not be prohibited from attending white schools and ordered that the school district begin a “freedom of choice” policy in fall of 1965. Unita’s legal suit chipped away at school desegregation in the birthplace of massive resistance. Under the freedom of choice of arrangement, her son Jeremiah became one of the first Black students to attend a previously all-white school.
Unita Blackwell later translated her educational activism into public service, national recognition, and a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She served as mayor of Mayersville — the first Black female mayor in the state — for over 20 years. Unita understood that strong communities are essential to student success, and used her position to bring water and sewage services, along with affordable housing, to the town. The MacArthur Foundation recognized her efforts with a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992.
Unita Blackwell’s outspoken and determined activism supported marginalized people, particularly Black children. She endured over 70 arrests but never gave in or gave up. She once remarked, “Being Black and in this country, you learn a great lesson, and this is how to overcome.” Unita overcame societal barriers based on sex and race discrimination. She sought something better for herself, her child, and her community. She is one of the numerous activists who worked behind the scenes to implement the law and spirit of Brown. May we celebrate her work and follow her example.
About the Author
Crystal Sanders is the associate professor of history and director of the Africana Research Center at Pennsylvania State University, She is the author of the award-winning book, A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle. Her writings can also be found in the Journal of Southern History, the Journal of African American History, the North Carolina Historical Review, and the History of Education Quarterly.