Unita Blackwell, a civil rights activist and the first black female mayor in Mississippi, died Monday in Biloxi. She was 86.
Born in 1933 to sharecroppers, Blackwell had to leave Mississippi as a child for Arkansas, as black kids in the Mississippi Delta at the time were not always allowed to attend school, Mississippi Today reports. She married and moved to Florida, but returned to Mississippi in 1962 and became active in the civil rights movement and Democratic politics. Blackwell served as the project director and field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and said she was jailed at least 70 times for trying to get black people registered to vote in Mississippi.
During a 1977 oral history interview with the University of Southern Mississippi, she shared that "being black and in this country, you learn a great lesson, and this is how to overcome. ... It's that power to move in the midst of opposition." Upon her election as mayor of Mayersville in 1976, Blackwell became the first black woman to serve as mayor in Mississippi, and she remained in office until 2001. Blackwell was also an adviser to six U.S. presidents, including Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford, and in 1992, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.