JULY 25, 1964

Credit: Wikipedia

Unita Blackwell became the Issaquena County delegate for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which fought to replace Mississippi’s all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. 

“We had no idea that we were changing the whole political future of America,” she said. “We were going because we didn’t have shoes for our children and decent houses to stay in and just the everyday life that we wanted.” 

Born during the Depression in the impoverished Mississippi Delta, her parents were sharecroppers, and they searched across the South for jobs that would pay them enough to feed them. When Freedom Summer came, she joined the civil rights movement and became a field secretary for SNCC. She was one of only eight Black Mississippians who tried to register to vote in Mayersville — only to get turned away. 

“Because we didn’t have nothing,” she told the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary, “we couldn’t lose nothing. But we wanted something for ourselves and for our children. And so we took a chance with our lives.” 

After she and her husband, Jeremiah, attempted to register to vote, they were fired from their plantation jobs, and the Ku Klux Klan tossed Molotov cocktails at her home. 

In 1965, she filed litigation challenging the suspension of 300 students, including her son, Jerry, for wearing SNCC’s “Freedom” pins. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld her case, in which also called for school desegregation. In 1976, she was elected mayor of Mayersville — the first African-American woman to serve as a mayor in Mississippi’s history. Within a few years, the town boasted paved streets, a sewer system and streetlights. 

In 1990, she was elected president of the National Conference of Black Mayors. Two years later, she received a MacArthur “genius” grant for her creative work as mayor. In 2006, she published her memoir, “Barefootin’: Life Lessons on the Road to Freedom”. A decade later, the state honored her with a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.