Interviewer: Judy Richardson
Production Team: X
Interview Date: August 10, 1989
Camera Rolls: 1130-1132
Sound Rolls: 160
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Unita Blackwell, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on August 10, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Let me ask you, what was it like, this is about being elected mayor, what was it like that first day when you woke up that morning and you realized that you were mayor in the middle of whi--of a White a community that usually had pla--power?
I think that the feeling of being a mayor, I guess you can't, just, really, I can't give it a good description, but, um, you felt, ah, elated, yet, ah, you know you had a lot of work to do. And, if, um, I succeed, um, we, as a people, um, Black people especially, succeed. If I fail, I think that that's one of the feelings that I had, if I fail, then it's another strike that, against us. And, um, but it was, it was a good elated feeling, but those was my concerns: that we have to make it. And we didn't have anything in, in the town, that towns needs, like water and sewage and all of these kinds of things. And I know that that was the first job, was to put together the infrastructure to bring to that rural town the things that it needed.
And then the sense of power, um, that suddenly you as a Black mayor had power that previously had been held by Whites, how did that feel? in terms of being able to do certain things.
Well, I think that, that at first it'd have to grow on you. That, that you, that this has really happened. That you have, ah, that, ah, power to, to do some things. Um, coming through the Civil Right(s) Movement, I had learned about what, what you could do. But for me to be in this position was, a, a, a, different feeling to, to know that I had the reign to go and, and get this done. I was always the advocator[SIC] of making sure that other folks got it done. But now, as we say, um, I was the, ah, power at city hall. Ah, we used to say, "Well, what can you do with city hall?" And so we'd protest against it or whatever, but I, I am now city hall, so, what, what, what, what will I do with this power?
How did you feel personally, I mean, did you feel very responsible? I mean, what was the sense of power that you felt?
Well, it, it's a sense of responsibility that you, that I felt that, that I had to deliver. I guess, what I, I, what I had taken on was a community that, that I felt that hadn't had anything developed in it. And it hadn't. I mean, we, we didn't have anything. And, um, and somehow, with the skills and things that I had learned over the years, of where to go, where to try to find people to help me develop Mayersville, I was just hoping and, and praying that, that, that I could pull it all together. And, and, um, and that's a strange feeling, you know, that. And so I'd call up on friends and organizations and people that I had worked with and folks that I had known and say, you know, "We've got to find a way to, to get some of the things for, for this community."
OK, perfect. Let me just say, also--
OK, so we're, it's 1984, and you're standing up at the podium at the Democratic National Convention. What did you feel like, having been and MFDP [Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party] delegate before, fighting all these people before, how did you feel?
In 1964, I went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, challenging the regular Democratic Party. And we couldn't get in, it was a long process they have, trying to get people to know that we had been denied the democratic process within our state. By 1984, I was asked to speak in the National Democratic Convention in San Francisco. That was a feeling of, um, I felt, I don't know what I'm going to do, or what I'm going to say, ah, and I tried not to get emotional about it, um, but that was a feeling that it was worth all of it, that we had been through--That we made it thusly far. I can remember a woman told me one time when I was running for justice of the peace, and I say I lost by about 6 votes, which they, that wasn't true, they took it in '67. And, um, she said, "Well, the reason I won't vote for you is because they gonna kill you." The Whites had told her that they were going to kill me. And she thought she was saving my life. And when I stood in that podium, twenty years later, that I was still living, that feeling, that I was standing there for this woman to understand that she had a right to register, to vote, for whomever she wanted to, and that we as a people was going to live. Jesse Jackson spoke before me, prime time, of course, but CNN picked me up and several stations in our area people did see me, late at night, and some of them that know me knew that, and maybe I'm doing it now, I felt tears, because Fannie Lou Hamer should have been standing there. She was standing there, in us, in me, in Jesse, in all of us. Because in 1964, she testified. Chaney and Schwerner died in my state, Mississippi for the right for me to stand there at the podium. That's what I felt. That I was standing there for all who had died, all who would live, all for the generation to come.
I've gotta do better. I knowed[SIC] I was too happy this morning.
Y'all ask some of the tough questions.
Yeah, but you did just what we needed.
Let's talk about the cost, um, given the cost that you just talked about, where did you personally find the courage to keep going through it?
The question of where do you find the courage to keep going, I guess, um, sometime you, you don't know. But, I, I, I want to put it that I know that when I got involved in, in the Civil Rights Movement, that I used to have a saying, and, "That nothing from nothing leaves nothing." And, um, we didn't have nothing. And so what was we going to lose by trying to get something? And so, I was about as low, in terms of economically, we didn't have a right to register to vote, we wasn't citizens, or any of these things, so what else can you do but go up? If you try to, to do some of these things, and try to help the next generation, which I had my son to look, ah, I wanted him to come up in a society that he would have the opportunities to be whatever he wanted to be, as well so as myself. So what else do you live for, except your family, your neighbors, your friends, the world? And so you get there, at least I felt that I did, the "keep going-ness" is that every time I look at that, and, and, and move through another era, because I've been through, from the era of the '60s, late '60s to the '70s and, um, the '80s, and now I'm headed into the '90s. Um, you do what you have to do to, um, make it better for all people.
And how do you do that? Given all you know about those who have fallen on the way? I mean, how do you see yourself through all that?
Well, I, I, I've, personally have had, um, had to pray, um, as Fannie Lou Hamer used to tell me, I had to learn how to love, even the enemy. There's a difference between loving and letting somebody walk on you. Um, we used to talk about, um, that we were going to send these White people home that had kept us down all these years. We was going to un-elect them because they was sick. And, um, when a person's sick, they needs to go home and lay down. And that was a loving way of, ah, getting rid of some of the disease that America had. And, um, I thi--I think I learned to love in the midst of conflict and chaos. And, I was trained by my mother, ah, what was right and what was wrong, but when you get into the eyes, and look into the eyes of hate and conflict, you have to learn these things deep down inside for yourself. And, um, I guess it's a gift, ah, I choose to say it's a gift from God, that I had the strength to continue. Um, and I learned it from a lot of people around me with the determination, the groups that I worked with, um, in the early part of my Civil Rights days, was a bunch of students, young people, um, I was ten years older than most of them. Um, sometimes, ah, we would figure out, you know, I was looking at these young students, educated, laying their lives on the line, and that gave me strength during that period, of, of the early part of my learning. What is my political rights, what is my rights as a human being.
Let me ask you because you mentioned the students, what would you tell to young people? What would you say to young people? How would you explain the movement for those who don't really understand it now, those young people, what, what did the movement do?
For the young people that, um, that we always together--
I'm sorry, I explained this wrong. How would you explain to young people what the movement did?
Well, I can say to young peoples today, ah, the, the, the pa--the era, we called the era, people talk about the era of the Civil Rights Movement, um, it was a era to break open and start a process which I say to young people today that they are able to be, go to colleges, universities, different places that at that time, in my state, you, you, you couldn't do it. It was a lot of people like Meredith, you know, and the rest of them, you know, you had to have the guards and everybody around, ah, the brought out the troops, the Klans would move, the, the, it just, it was a time to get the process the way it is today, where they can choose, and I think the young people have to understand that movement was a process where that they could choose where they wanted to go to school, where that they, ah, had a right to vote or not to vote. It wasn't that you couldn't vote, because at that time we couldn't, we wasn't allowed to. You, you're life was on the line if you would talk about even registering. Your life was on the, the things that they talk for granted, I'd say that young people take for granted now, is just like an every day occurrence, that they can get up in the morning and get in a car, or, walk, or whatever, without always an incident. It was always an incident. You did not look a White person in the eye. You had to have your head bowed. You didn't meet a White person coming down the streets in a car better than theirs. Those shoes would be taken away from you, or they'd push you on the side, or whatever. Things you'd take for granted that you can just go up and says, "Give me some gas." You couldn't do that. You had to stand back. If a White person was there, then you had to stand back and wait till the White person get their gas, and then you have to, you know, be in this submissive situation of, "Please, sir, could I have some, ah, gas, sir." You know. They don't even do that. The young people take it for granted, "Hello. How you doing? Yes. No." And walk in. And I see them, and they just walk in and out and it's just fabulous to see it, you know, that the feeling of freedom. That feeling of freedom that the young people have now is what the young people before, in the '60s, fit for, died for, that they may have a right to continue. So we are now in a computer age. And our young people have a chance. We still got problems.
Lets cut please. Before we move to the problems.
In terms of the war on poverty, how, what did the war on poverty do for you in terms of, of, that sense of being a citizen?
The war on poverty, um, for us in, in the state of Mississippi, and especially for me, um, was a stepping stone for us to learn about how to be a citizen. Um, because now that we were trying to move out from being registered to vote, all this was happening at the same time. We got involved in training programs. And that was part of the, the program of, of, CDGM [Child Development Group of Mississippi].
OK, give me a sense of that, that feeling that you get of finally being a citizen and realizing that what you're involved in is not just White folks' business now, that you have some control.
One of the feelings of, ah, that happened for, for, for me, and I guess for, for others, also, the War on Poverty situation is when we came into, ah, training sessions and learning now that we are newly franchised citizens, um, some of us was ready to, to vote, others, the passing of the Civil Rights Bill, 1965, that we had, um, moved into telling people that they don't have to do all these interpretations of the Constitution anymore. And all of that, those victories that we came through, but what is we going to do with it? And, ah, with our newly, ah, thing that we had come into? And then, that's when, um, that we had to learn, what, what do a board of supervisors do? What do, um, city councils do? What do mayors do? We never bothered with that before because, ah, that was, that was White folks' business. They was the only one that was in charge. And, um, some people said, "Well, did you learn that in school?" Well, I'm sure it went by us, you know, in, in some places you saw the government was this and that kind of thing, but it wasn't ever spelled out that the way that we were trained, what it is that these people do. And what it is that, that we could plan our own lives to help develop things to better our every day living conditions. And, um, and this was really exciting, you know, to, to be in this position of learning that. I never knew that the board of supervisors could do the things that they could do. I never knew what mayors could do. I read it when we were going to school, you know, there's, there is a mayor, this is the local government, bloom, bloom, bloom. But it did not say that you could make sure that the people in your community, you know, would have adequate food, or you would try to get up and do these kinds of things. You would find that we should have health care. We would try to get these things. We, we would cooperate with the state government, the local government, bringing all these forces together to meet the needs of the people--
Just a second. That's it.
Try to give me that, because that's perfect. OK, we're ready.
OK, if you could give me a sense, again, of, um, what it's like to suddenly be doing things that you had always assumed only White people could do. And the sense that made you feel like you were finally a citizen.
Well, we learned to find out what it is that White people always did and we didn't know or what they should have been doing. Um, and, we went through training sessions and, and the War on Poverty, you know, was part of that process of getting us through that. And, it just made us feel like, you know, that we was really citizens.
And, could you do it one more time without even mentioning War on Poverty. Could you just talk about, you can do it even a little longer than that, but a sense of, of, um, going through that, that you had, again, assumed were, were only White people did, and then that end piece.
All right, well, you know, one of the things that, that, um, I think we learned from coming out of the, that era of the movement into another era of getting to be, ah, in training and learning what it is that, that we are to do, which only White people did, and that was that run offices, and be elected to, ah, different offices, and, and, ah, mayors and, and board of supervisors, and school boards, and all these things that we was not on, and this really made us feel, me personally, that I am a citizen.
Cut. We can cut now.
I don't know.
Why, why did Black folks leave the South and go north?
I think the reason why the Black folks left the South and went north is due to mechanization, a lot of it, and brutality, violence, all of these things that was going on in the South. And they thought it was better, in, in the, in the North. Um, people would come back with, ah, in a car, or tell them how great it is up here, and say all those kinds of things. But, um, some of us, you know, um, maybe was waiting for the relative to tell us to come, or could we go and stay with them, or, whatever, um, and then we found out that some of the cars was rented for that weekend. We found out that they stayed in little, small apartments, and, um, so, they wasn't much better off. In, quite naturally, some people made it. But, um, for those of us who stayed, um, I feel that you can't run away from, um, institutionalized racism. Some places it's worser than others. Um, we faced, um, much more violence in, in, in the South, I suppose, than some areas. But, um, I'd like to say that, um, it was good for us to face it honestly. We always knew where we stood, in the South. We met the Klans, or whatever, head on. It wasn't polished that things was better. We didn't walk around in the illusion that things was better. Up north, I think they did. I think that's one of the reasons why it was more of rebellions, ah, some people call it riot, I call it rebellion stages, um, in the North than it was in the South. The South was activists. Moving, protesting, so on. In the North, it was more of the rebellious corps rioting and so forth. Because of the disillusion. We know what we had to do. They was frustrated and wasn't too sure. And the anger come out, in, in different ways.
Keep rolling. Unita, what do you think about America?
I think that America is my home. And my folks has worked generations and generations, sweat, blood, and tears, has molded this country. I know we all come from our different motherlands by generations and generations back. Mine's was Africa. Um, but this is my home, because this is all I know. And, Mississippi is my home. I love Mississippi. And I feel that we have to develop our country into what we want it to be. And that's what I think about America.
Yeah, thank you.