Unita Blackwell in 2001
Photo: Associated Press

Unita Blackwell, a veteran of the civil rights movement and winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant who was the first black woman to be elected a mayor in the state of Mississippi, has died. She was 86.

Blackwell’s son confirmed that she died Monday, according to the Associated Press.

Blackwell was born in the impoverished Mississippi Delta during the Great Depression and left school at the age of 12 to do farm labor.

In a 1986 interview for the documentary Eyes on the Prize, Blackwell spoke of what inspired her work to get African Americans the right to vote in her native Mississippi.

“I was only told when I started off that if I registered to vote that I would have food to eat and a better house to stay in, ’cause the one I was staying in was so raggedy you could see anywhere and look outdoors. That I would have, my child would have, a better education,” she said.

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And in 1964, while working as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Blackwell and other black activists tried to register to vote, only to be rejected due to a discriminatory poll test meant to thwart their efforts.

That same year, she, along with fellow activist Fannie Lou Hamer and other members of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, protested the seating of Mississippi’s all-white Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Then in 1976, according to the Clarion Ledger, Blackwell helped the Mississippi town of Mayersville win its charter and became its first mayor that year, serving until 1993, and again from 1997-2001.

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Blackwell, who won a $350,000 MacArthur “genius” grant in 1992 for her work on housing and water services, was an accomplished public servant.

As the AP notes:

She developed a utility district to provide water and sewage services. Under her leadership, the town [of Mayersville] also paved streets and worked to improve housing.

With a high school equivalency diploma and financial support from a rural fellowship, she was accepted in 1982 into a regional planning program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She completed her master’s degree there in 1983.

Blackwell was president of the National Conference of Black Mayors from 1990 to 1992. She was a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1991 and 1992.

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Blackwell ran for the U.S. House in 1993, losing to Bennie Thompson, who still holds the seat.

According to the Clarion Ledger, the U.S. congressman said of Blackwell:

“I am saddened by the passing of Unita Blackwell. She dedicated her life to fighting for civil rights in Mississippi. We are forever grateful for her work and sacrifice. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and all those who loved her.”