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Selected Interviews: Unita Blackwell

Question: Would you talk a little bit about when and how you got involved in the movement?

Unita Blackwell: I guess I was born in it, you know, I was born in the movement. The day I was born, I was born black. So, all my life I knew something was wrong with the way that people perceived me as a black person. And even our own people were always cautious of white people and that kind of thing, because I was born in the Mississippi Delta. But when I got actively involved I guess was ... we had some, they called them Freedom Riders. They [came] into the state and we heard about them going to Parchman [state prison] because they were sitting on a bus, and they called them Freedom Riders. So everybody [doing civil rights work] after then was called Freedom Riders. ....

But I was sitting on the porch one day and they was walking down the street and I heard about—we would hear about things because we knew when anybody like the NAACPs and different stuff like that would be around because they was classified at that time as a very radical group in Mississippi, the NAACP. And Mr. Sias down the road, Henry Sias, was a member. And so [SNCC staff members] Stokely [Carmichael] and Charlie Cobb had already been down there ... and talked to Mr. Sias and said that they wanted to come in and talk to people and that kind of thing. So you saw these guys and they walked out into the field with overalls on, you know, and hoeing the field with you and talk about you had a right to register to vote, and that kind of type of thing. ....

So one day we was sitting on the porch and here come two more guys and they was walking fast. Well, we know that at that time you did not walk fast in the South. .... And so they just said, "Hello!" And didn't nobody speak that way; you know, we said "How y'all feeling?" you know. And I said, 'That's them.' ....

And ... and the next time I saw them, they was in church, they came to Sunday school. So they sit there and when the time comes, 'cause in Sunday school the attendant gets up and—we called it "review," review the lesson. So he got up and said a few words and reviewed the lesson, and said, Anybody else has something to say? And, well, one of the guys ... [named] Louis got up, and he was talking like New Yorkers talk— he was from Brooklyn—and we didn't know what he was saying. People just bowed their head down and snickered a little bit. So the other one that was with him was Bob Wright and he said, Well—and he was from Virginia—and then he went to talking to tell us, said ... God help those that help themselves, and he took it from that and was talking about we had a right to register to vote.

And that's when I think I heard it, really heard it again in my life. I had been going to school and I had saw it in books, but voting didn't mean that for us. It didn't mean that for me. But he said that you all have a right—this is the right of every individual in this country, that they can register and supposed to vote. Now you have opposition to that, and he went on to explain it, 'til we come back to the 11:00 service. .... We invited him back to talk to the preacher before the Board, the Deacon Board and everything. And so he came to the service and the pastor—we got the word to the pastor—and he stood up again, and so he and Louis stood up to tell it, to tell the group in church what our rights was and could they come and talk to us about going to the courthouse to try and register to vote. And um, that was I guess the—another era in my life of getting involved.

Q: That was the summer of '64?

UB: That was the spring, you know coming into the spring.

Q: Did they ask you to house any volunteers for that summer?

UB: Well, when it first started off it was just talking about registering to vote, to try to register to vote. .... And ... they asked who would go. So I said okay, you know. I was listening at the presentation they made: if you registered to vote, you would have a decent house to stay in and food to eat and basic kinds of things that we needed. And your elected officials is the ones who's supposed to do this and that, and they was explaining all that, and you may get to be an elected official and all that other stuff. And I stood up, and my husband caught me by the dress tail and pulled me back down 'cause he was supposed to stand up first, you know, because he was the man. So he stood, and then I stood up, and I been standing ever since.

But it's that feeling that—what I'm trying to convey here, that we done plowed through so many territories, like women is not supposed to speak, they're not supposed to say anything in the church, and even struggling for freedom we had our place that we wasn't supposed to do nothing or say anything. And we wasn't aware of how bound that we were by all of these things that kept us away from fighting for what we now know is all our freedoms.

And so anyway we went down there to this courthouse, and those two trees is still there, and stood. I think that's when I really got angry. And this is the first time when I saw guns in the trucks, and come around the courthouse. And eight of us are standing there: four was supposed to try to go and register today, and four was supposed to go tomorrow. .... And ... so that courthouse that we wasn't allowed to go in, unless it was time to go there and pay your ... tax or something like that, you didn't go. And you went in the back door. And so we was to go to that side back to try to get in, and the look on the whites' faces: they was just red, and the anger and the hate. And we stood there and I got very angry that day and determined or something happened to me, and I decided nothing from nothing leaves nothing, 'cause we didn't have nothing. And you were gonna die anyway, 'cause they're standing there with guns and you hadn't done nothing.

So I went to try to register to vote, and the ladies, one of those women ... she threw the paper at me. And I was to interpret the Constitution of the state of Mississippi, that we had never saw. You know, you saw it in a book or something like that, but you know just had never saw this ... and knew that you had to interpret it, and that's the same person that told you that you could not register to vote or didn't want you to register to vote—but they was to tell you whether or not you passed it.

So that was, I feel, the beginning. And out of that is a lot of things multiplied during that era, a lot of things happened, they happened real fast. And that's what—a lot of times people see what happened to you, you know, you must have lived five or six lifetimes, is because a lot of things happened real fast. That was the organizing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. We were pulling together the people and trying to get them registered to vote. That was part of the technique. The other was to—we had to set up caucus meetings to get ready to, for the challenge of 1964. The civil rights workers was you know, killed. Just a lot of things was happening all at once that we were going through.

Q: When did you become SNCC staff?

UB: Well, see, that was the year all this happened. After they, after I went to the courthouse and stood up and that kind of stuff, Stokely came down and he was the Second Congressional Chair, you know, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, of coordinating all this effort. And he said I want you to go and meet somebody, because we're going to select you, if it's all right with you all, to be staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And that was Fannie Lou Hamer. So I went to see Ms. Hamer, and Ms. Hamer and I end up over in ...Atlanta, and we had our session, and I became SNCC staff.

Q: Now you—when you tried to register in sixty-four, I take it they didn't let you register.

UB: Of course not.

Q: And here, was anybody being successfully registered here?

UB: No. .... But it was fast, you know, one of those things I look back on it. And my goodness, what can happen in four, five months. You know, and how we was just steady moving, because it was our daily operation. It wasn't like you was at home and going to prepare, get up and clean up your house and do a meal and sit around and talk to people or go to work or something, you know. This was it. It was zeroed in on this. You ate, you slept, you did everything in terms of voter registration.

Q: How did Mr. Blackwell feel about your extensive involvement?

UB: Well, see, that's the change that came into our houses. .... You know that we were women who come up, you know: you do what your husband say, and everything comes by your husband, and you didn't do anything without your husband. And all of a sudden people are looking for me and asking me questions, and it didn't get intensive until after we got a telephone, which that next year—we had been suing, you know, a long time ago, trying to get some phones and things. But we got a phone and then the folks would call and want to speak to me, and he'd say, well I'm here, what is it? And he couldn't understand that. You know 'cause that change had come ... that they said no, we don't want to speak to you, we want to speak to Unita. And it built in our house a hostility, you know, not open—but it started a competitiveness. It was a whole competing kind of type thing, so it got real bad.

And he just couldn't visualize that this was the person that he married. I became another person, and that's the development of this movement, and getting involved in SNCC and all these other things, for me, I guess that I bloomed into the person that I really was, or wanted to be, and that was free to talk and make a decision and say what I thought and not feel hampered all the time, and bound and controlled. And that's sort of the way it was, it was a way of life. I guess some people adjusted to that, but I guess deep down inside of me I never did. I never was a woman that just kind of sit over in the corner somewhere and didn't say nothing.

Q: So, you and your husband eventually—

UB: Yeah, well, my husband and I divorced. And I can't just put all of it on the movement, but I'm just saying that that was some of the fire that pushed it along. I guess I'd a been with him today, you know, if... I don't know. But I don't hate him or anything like that. We just became two different people and we divorced.

Q: Your son growing up in a house that was very movement active: how did that affect his growing up? Has he chosen to be involved in the struggle?

UB: My son came up during this period of struggle with family and that kind of type thing, and he's a quiet person in a way, but he's in the United States Navy, and I think that what it did for him and maybe it did that for a lot of people, but I was just thinking because his daddy and I didn't want him to get into the Army or Navy or anything, you know we've been fighting wars and against wars and all this kind of stuff and that wasn't what he was about. He became his own independent person, and I think he made his decision: this is what I want to do. And he did it. And as I look back over it I'm glad that he is that kind of person, and might of what pushed him along is that he wanted to be in a position of feeling powerful, because he came up with a feeling that black people didn't have any power. And he is a expert or whatever they call it—the top in terms of shooting. You know, because he saw so many guns pointed at his mother, people coming by looking for us and all kinds of things, so I think one of the things he was going to learn to do was shoot. And he became an expert or whatever it is in his field—marksman. He can shoot. And that's one of the things he got awarded for.

Q: What you were saying about the change that took place in you : one of the things that we're looking at is the debate that took place mainly within SNCC before the summer of '64 about whether to do it, whether to bring in all these Northern, mostly-white volunteers. Some people have told us that they opposed it, that they didn't think that it was a good idea; ... they thought it would stifle local leadership, that it would prevent the sort of grassroots development of local leadership because these white people would come in and Mississippi rural, black people without much education would sort of look to the white people for leadership and wouldn't stand up themselves. It doesn't sound like it had that effect on you.

UB: Well, you know, I think that people are coming at it from all different ways ... because the movement in Mississippi started by, you know, local blacks was involved. And they could make [the] decisions. Because I always say that for us, it was black people here that started off getting involved. But when the whites came in, I think it was a reassurance that all white people was not like the ones that we were dealing with. That was, to me, that was an interesting situation, you know, to sit in a room and talk to white people, not they talking down to me or I'm talking up, looking up to them. We're trying to figure out some strategies for us to all stay alive and work out, you know, how we're going to get things done and registered and vote and all that.

I think we all have hang-ups on color—who's black, white, whatever. And I call that prejudice and hang-ups and so forth. And in communities and so forth to see white people, for our people it was a strategy, because we, we didn't want them to stay too long in some cases because their life was truly in danger because they was white, and because they call them nigger lovers and all these other kinds of things. But also it was a way for people to see that because we had been so isolated. ....

I feel this, if we hadn't have had white people in this state in 1964, they would've killed that black boy [James Chaney] like they done it so many times—and I calls them boys because I'm older than they were. They would've killed that young man and that would have been it. Never would have heard of it again.

Q: Did you have a particular person in mind?

UB: Well, we just talked about—when we was talking about the three civil rights workers that got killed. They would've killed a black man and wouldn't a thing been done about it. Okay? But Goodman and Schwerner was there, you see what I'm saying. And it started a whole different kind of thing. See, we had some of the congressmen's children and some of the other people's children that came during that summer. And they told the story. As Hodding Carter—old man Hodding Carter, we're not talking about the last one—he wrote a book, The Closed Society. And that's true; it was locked in. Whatever was done in Mississippi just was done in Mississippi, and you never would've heard about it anymore. ... But in 1964? People felt no hope. But it was the students, the white students that came in here to work with us, that I felt done a whole lot in terms of exposure.

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