Unita Blackwell, 86, Dies; Rights Crusader and Winner of Historic Election

In Issaquena County — long one of the poorest and least populated counties in the United States — she was one of eight African-Americans who tried to register to vote in 1964. As they stood outside the courthouse, white men with guns surrounded them. Finally, they were allowed to go inside, one at a time, to register. But they had to take a literacy test, which was rigged against them, and all of them failed.

This only fueled Ms. Blackwell’s determination. She joined several lawsuits that challenged voter discrimination, although in the Jim Crow South most such efforts went nowhere until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1965, Ms. Blackwell sued the Issaquena County Board of Education, which had suspended 300 students, including her son, for wearing freedom pins. She also sued to desegregate the school district. The courts — first state and then federal — held that the students could not wear the pins, but that the schools had to be desegregated.

In 1967, Ms. Blackwell was among those who met Senator Robert F. Kennedy when he made his historic visit to the Delta to see the poverty there first hand. “We have children who have never had a glass of milk,” she told him.

Her election as mayor of Mayersville, which at the time had fewer than 400 residents, gave her the chance to bring about the change she sought. She paved the streets, installed streetlights and sewers, and fought for better housing.

She went to China in 1973 with Ms. MacLaine, whom she had known from the civil rights movement. Ms. Blackwell proved popular with the Chinese and ended up going back at least 15 times, including to Beijing for a conference in conjunction with the World Conference on Women in 1995.

For the rest of her life Ms. Blackwell would exhort people to organize and demand their rights.

“A small group of abolitionists writing and speaking eventually led to the end of slavery,” she wrote in her memoir. “A few stirred-up women brought about women’s voting.” The people, she said, are the ones who bring about change. “Us. We are the movers. The president and Congress follow us.”


more recommended stories

  • Steve Bullock, Locked Out of the Debate, Sees a Path Forward in the 2020 Race

    NASHUA, N.H. — Gov. Steve Bullock.

  • ‘Talk Is Meaningless’: Readers Tell Us What They Want From the Debates

    We wanted to hear from voters.

  • Where in New York to Watch the Democratic Debates

    Weather: Less humid and plenty of.

  • Queens D.A. Primary Too Close to Call, as Cabán Narrowly Leads Katz

    [What you need to know to.

  • What Happened at the Democratic Debate? Jimmy Fallon Will Let You Know

    On Wednesday and Thursday nights, as.

  • Judge Rejects Government’s Request to Halt Emoluments Suit Against Trump

    WASHINGTON — A federal judge refused.

  • Judges Grill Justice Dept. Lawyer Over Accommodations for Migrant Children

    Sarah Fabian, a Justice Department lawyer,.

  • Review: ‘The Investigation’ Makes the Mueller Report a Dark-Comic Indictment

    Who knew that the Mueller report.

  • A Plan to Mine the Minnesota Wilderness Hit a Dead End. Then Trump Became President.

    The mining giant controlled by the.

  • On Politics: Democrats Split on Emergency Migrant Aid

    • Senator Bernie Sanders, along with.

  • The House and Senate Have Separate Plans for Border Aid. Here’s What’s Different.

    Agencies and federal officials at the.

  • Emergency Aid for Migrants Badly Divides Democrats

    WASHINGTON — Congress is trying to.

  • Bernie Sanders Unveils Education Plan to Eliminate Student Debt

    While Mr. Sanders is widely credited.

  • Buttigieg Faces Pointed Questions and Jeers at Town Hall – Video

    Channels & Shows Home Search Politics.

  • A Presidential Candidate Assesses the Nation’s Political Ills


  • A Message From the Billionaire’s Club: Tax Us

    A group of wealthy Americans, some.

  • White House Unveils Economic Portion of Middle East Peace Plan

    WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said.

  • At Town Hall, Pete Buttigieg Confronts Tensions Around South Bend Shooting

    He told the audience that he.

  • Joe Sestak, Former Pennsylvania Congressman, Becomes the 24th Democratic Candidate for President

    Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral.

  • Who Gets to Sit on the Supreme Court?

    CONFIRMATION BIAS Inside Washington’s War Over.

  • Bolton Warns Iran Not to ‘Mistake U.S. Prudence and Discretion for Weakness’

    JERUSALEM — President Trump’s national security.

  • How the Democratic Candidates Responded to a Health Care Policy Survey

    9. Do you support the importation.

  • Trump Emphatically Denies Sexual Assault Allegation by E. Jean Carroll

    President Trump again denied that he.

  • Biden, in Interview With Sharpton, Tries to Defuse Criticism of Remarks on Segregationists

    COLUMBIA, S.C. — Joseph R. Biden.

  • Pompeo, a Steadfast Hawk, Coaxes a Hesitant President on Iran

    A telling moment came in March.

  • People Who Can’t Vote Still Count Politically in America. What if That Changes?

    These differences would affect how redistricting.

  • What the 2020 Democrats Are Like Behind the Scenes

    At times, candidates flashed revealing glimpses.

  • They Each Backed Off Strikes: Trump in ’19, Obama in ’13, Clinton in ’98

    Syria’s use of chemical weapons violated.

  • Paul Manafort and Sean Hannity Traded Complaints and Tidbits for Months, Texts Show

    WASHINGTON — He has been called.

  • The Oil Market Shows It Can Take a Punch

    So far, this isn’t your typical.

  • Newsom Offers Plan to Help Shield California Utilities From Wildfire Liablilty

    With the effects of climate change.

  • Trump to Officially Nominate Esper as Next Defense Secretary

    WASHINGTON — President Trump plans to.