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In the early 1960s, most black Mississippians were locked in poverty on cotton plantations. Public education was separate—and so unequal that most blacks were illiterate. Democracy Mississippi-style was a travesty. Back in 1890, whites had designed a system allowing county registrars to decide who could vote, based on what was called a literacy test. In practice, the county officials only rejected blacks.

In the three years before the Freedom Summer volunteers made headlines, SNCC staff members and black Mississippians quietly risked their lives testing Jim Crow.

Black Mississippians like Unita Blackwell. "I guess I was born in it, I was born in the movement; the day I was born I was born black," says Blackwell, a large woman with a deep, sonorous voice who lives in the Mississippi River town of Mayersville. "So all my life I knew something was wrong with the way that people perceived me as a black person, 'cause I was born in the Mississippi Delta."

In the 1970s, Unita Blackwell would become mayor of Mayersville. In 1992 she would win the prestigious MacArthur "genius" grant. But such achievements were unthinkable in the early 1960s. Then, Blackwell and her husband lived in a two-room shotgun house and worked on a plantation. She'd heard about the Freedom Rides, and she'd heard that young civil rights workers—some of them educated blacks from the North—had ventured into Mississippi.

"One day we were sitting on the porch," she recalls, "and here come two more guys and they was walkin' fast, and 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'd say 'How y'all feelin?' you know. And we said, 'That's them.'"

A few days later, a SNCC staff member came to Blackwell's church to speak. He was looking for people brave enough to walk into their county courthouse and attempt to register for the vote. "And I stood up," Blackwell says. "My husband caught me by the dress tail and pulled me back down, because he was supposed to stand up first, you see, because he's the man. So he stood, then I stood up, and I've been standing up ever since."

When Blackwell and several others went to see the Issaquena County registrar, a mob of angry whites met them at the courthouse. She was rejected as a voter without being physically attacked.

But other blacks who tried to register were beaten, jailed, even murdered.

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