Civil Rights Leader Looks Back

Unita Blackwell, Mississippi's first female African American mayor and one of the state's most prominent civil rights leaders, reflects on the racial struggle in her state. Blackwell shares the lessons she gleaned from her long and legendary career.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News broadcasting from the studios of WJSU at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.

And now it's time for "Wisdom Watch" where we ask our respected elders to guide us through today's most challenging and important issues. People who aren't just smart, but wise. Today her life reads like a novel, but it is all true. She picked and chopped cotton alongside her sharecropper parents, dropped out of school in the eighth grade, and tried to find a dignified place in the small world the segregated south had assigned her. Until one day, when she decided to fight back.

She became a leader in one of the most dangerous assignments of the civil rights movement. She challenged the Democratic establishment and went on to become the first African-American female mayor in the state of Mississippi and a confidant of presidents. I am honored to welcome this Mississippi treasure to the program. Unita Blackwell, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. UNITA BLACKWELL (Former Mayor, Mayersville Mississippi; Civil Rights Activist): You're welcome. I was feeling full inside when you started off talking. And that's what it's all about, the young people, the next generations after generations to know that they can do it, and they have it inside. My mother used to say, you can do it, you can do it, you can do it. She was the person that coming up didn't have the opportunities that she tried to make sure that we had, my sister and I.

MARTIN: What you actually did - and first of all, let me just say, I'm so sorry we didn't get up to Myersville to see you. We were - our flight came in a little bit late, and we weren't able to get up there to see you. So I'm sorry about that because I wanted to get you to sign my book, "Barefootin'," your memoir that you wrote a little while ago. What do you mean by "Barefootin'"?

Ms. BLACKWELL: Well, barefootin', for this part of the world, we went barefooted a lot because we was in the fields and most people that knows about - you know, people didn't have shoes back then. You had one pair of shoes and you'd keep them - try to wear them for Sundays. But barefoot means sometimes you may step on something, and don't know it, you know cut your feet, do whatever, but you keep on going. That's what it means. That is has its challenges, but you keep going.

MARTIN: And that's what you did.

Ms. BLACKWELL: Yes.

MARTIN: I think it's hard for some people today to - I know it was hard even for me, and I'm not that young, but thank you for that - to imagine some of the things that you went through. And we don't have time to talk about all of those things, but one thing that stood out for me was when you were in the middle of trying to - this was in 1965 - plan a peaceful march in support of voting rights. And you and a bunch of other women - mothers, many of them mothers - were sort of carded off to jail and treated in a really disgusted and humiliating fashion. Do you ever think of those days now?

Ms. BLACKWELL: Well, yes. One of the things is, I think, that it's a time when it gives you courage on the inside. One of the things that happened is that - you never been in the situation - where they told us not to march. And we did, with guns pointed at our heads and different things. And we went to jail and the group come and get us out. Marian Wright Edelman, and all of the Children Defense Fund. So we've been through a lot. We would go down, and I'd been beat in jail, everything, just because I wouldn't answer a question. But now as I get older, which I am older - I was born 1933, March 13 - I try to encourage young people, if you want it, you know, you have to fight for it, 'cause there's no other way out.

MARTIN: One of the things about your book that I like is that you point out that - I think a lot of times, you know, now, in hindsight, everybody was in the movement, right? But you point out that everybody wasn't in the movement. And a lot of people were scared and they didn't - they were either scared or they were quick to turn around and, you know, report on your activities to people.

Ms. BLACKWELL: That's right.

MARTIN: Why do you think you were able to put yourself at risk in this way when other people were not? I mean, it just seemed like it came on you one day. As a matter of fact you talk about how you were walking down the road and one of your - I don't know if it was friend or a relative - and you saw these freedom riders, people who were coming to organize. And you saw that they were in the community. It's a small community. Everybody knew who everybody was. And you said, I sure would like to meet those people.

And one of your - it was either a friend or relative said, oh, I hope they don't come messing around here, stirring up trouble. I wonder, what's the difference between the people like you, who say, I sure want to meet those people, and the people who don't, the people who are afraid? What do you think?

Ms. BLACKWELL: I guess it was my grandmother. I was brought up to stand up for yourself. Mother was a great cook, so they'd never mess with her because they didn't want her to stop cooking. But she would sit down and say, you know, all of us is God's children. And I had two strong women, that was my grandmother and one I call Aunt Begay(ph). That was her sister. And she - we was raised up not to back down. And my mother worked the whole of her life picking cotton and doing whatever and so forth. But she wasn't afraid. She says God is going to hold us up. Well, I was brought up in a Christian situation, but we - the women folks was allowed to speak because the men folks was always pushing us up, you know. They said, you got a tongue don't you?

MARTIN: Do you think that courage is something that you are born with or do you think it's something you can learn?

Ms. BLACKWELL: I think it's both. I think we get the hang of it after - you know, it's in you. I've been sitting in jails and beat and drugged, but I sit in my own state in Mississippi, which I was born in this state. And I had a father that his father was beat and killed and drugged. And he'd sit and tell us the story of all these things, and said that we still is human beings even though the whites don't like us and so forth and whatever. I had great encouragement from a praying mother and a daddy that would shoot the eyelashes off a bird. He would! And I just think about him sometime. I says, well, you all got me in this trouble. I'm going to have to fight it on out to the end.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. And I'm speaking with Unita Blackwell, one of Mississippi's foremost citizens, the first African-American female mayor in the state, and a MacArthur Fellow. Did you ever think of saying you know what, I'm just going to move to Arizona and get away from all this?

Ms. BLACKWELL: My whole thing - the movement became my life because it was something that - my grandmother was in the movement and all these women and they would say, you know, we have to stand anyhow. And sometime we would take the place of the men. But I'm grateful to be here, because I was born in 1933, March 18. And so you can count it up if you want to. I don't count it that often.

MARTIN: And you've had so many amazing experiences. I mean, becoming a mayor of Mayersville - serving for 25 years, becoming the first African-American female mayor in the whole state - going on to become a leader in the State Democratic Party, a party that you once had to challenge at that famous 1964 Democratic Convention. So, you know, traveling all over the world, becoming a MacArthur Fellow. You know, we're in an election year, of course, and I know you sort of follow these things. Snd there's this whole conversation now about whether we are ready to get beyond race. Do you think that that's possible?

Ms. BLACKWELL: Well, I feel that we is contaminated. That's what I would call the word, contamination. We've been touched with this stuff so long. Think about a people that's been in this for hundreds of years. That's us. And what we have to stand - we got to stand there now.

MARTIN: Do you think though that we're ready to put race behind us? Do you think that's even possible?

Ms. BLACKWELL: Oh, well, I think that one of the things that we will have to keep working at that, because most of the whites, even if they are not as bad as they was quite naturally, because they don't get anything out of it anymore.

MARTIN: If there was a young person starting out today, and one of the things you've talked about is how much you revere public service and how honored you feel to be of service, but a lot of people today don't think too highly of politics and such like that. If there was a young person starting out today who's interested in being in public service, is there any advice you would offer?

Ms. BLACKWELL: I'd tell him, you know, if you want to do something in life, there's no better feeling than to be in a position of helping your people. And what I mean by my people is black people, white people, green people, anybody that wants to do right. And we all live in a society and recognize that all of us is human beings. And so that's where I go out to. And I found out even in my own town that I incorporated - I incorporated this town and put it together and put water systems in - what it is, is if there's something that's needed we need to be fixing it, you know? And you can tell people that you can do this, and they found out if they just tag along we got it done.

MARTIN: Now, I have to ask you. There's a young man out here who's trying to become the first African-American president, and he's also running against somebody who you also know very well, became good friends with over the years, Senator Hillary Clinton, who's trying to become the first woman president of this country. And I just wonder what you think about all that?

Ms. BLACKWELL: Well, when you look at Hillary, you know, you're getting mixed feelings between there's the black fellow over there…

MARTIN: Barack Obama.

Ms. BLACKWELL: Yeah. And so what we have is a mixture, and ever who we get, we're one step up, that's all I can say.

MARTIN: Unita Blackwell is a civil rights activist, the former mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi, a MacArthur Fellow, and she was kind enough to join us by phone from her home because we couldn't get up there to see her. Her memoire is called "Barefootin': Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom." Thank you so much, Miss Blackwell, for speaking with us.

Ms. BLACKWELL: Well, I'm enjoying talking to you. Take care of yourself.

MARTIN: I sure will.

Ms. BLACKWELL: All right.

MARTIN: And you too.

Ms. BLACKWELL: OK.

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