SHE (Surviving, Healing, and Evolving)®
SHE (Surviving, Healing, and Evolving)®

         At least once a month, we will spotlight a DYNAMIC sister (see below) whose life                                                contributed to the greatness and beauty of this world.                                                  (No vile stereotypes of Black women here! You will have to search elsewhere               if you are interested in nonsensical racist doggerel.)

Sisters are complex and multidimensional.  If only people would let the Black woman be.  Just let  her be!  Unfettered, it would be so much easier to demonstrate the brilliance she has to fight to exhibit in this world.  This page is dedicated to her story or the SHESTORY!       

Mississippi's First Black Female Mayor Jailed More Than 75 Times For Trying To Register Black People To Vote

 

“I thought nothing from nothing leaves nothing, and we have nothing, and we’re going to have to stand for something. I was afraid, but that was the day I decided I was going to die for my freedom.”  The Honorable Unita Blackwell

     November, 2017.  She was jailed everyday for 30 consecutive days because she had the nerve to be involved in the Freedom Summer Movement, which put her on a collision course with the brutal White power structure of her home state of Mississippi. In sum total, she was jailed 75 times.

     Unita Blackwell says she “was born in the movement,” because she was born Black. Like so many African Americans of previous generations, and now, her life has been one of arduous, dangerous, and consistent struggle, but her mental strength and tenacity has been honored again and again. One honor, of historic proportions and immense value, came when she was elected mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi, making her the first Black woman in Mississippi history to hold that title.

     A river town in west Mississippi, Mayersville was a popular shipping port during the antebellum days. But it was a tiny patch of distressed land with a long-suffering Black “side of town” when Unita was first elected mayor in 1976. Yet, while still serving as mayor, in 1992, and at the age of 59, she was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant (the “genius grant”) for her innovative approach to solving her town’s problems.

     There stands, today, for example, affordable brick houses, which she willed into existence, to replace some of the poor, dilapidated living structures in that Mississippi Delta town; and the town is now incorporated. She also put a utility district in place, because the town did not have a water system that supplied clean drinking water, and many homes were simply without running water, when she came into office. The MacArthur grant committee also admired and acknowledged the fact that Unita had enrolled in school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, at age 50, to earn a master’s degree in regional planning.

     Born “U.Z.” in Lula, Coahoma County, Mississippi, but later renamed Unita Zelma by an influential elementary school teacher who recognized that she would do well in life and needed more than initials, Unita’s parents were sharecroppers who picked cotton. As a young girl, her education was complete after the 8th grade, as was common among Black people who were deprived of so many of the bounties of being an American citizen. Yet, that did not prevent her from engaging in the activist work that would propel her into greatness. (Like many African Americans who were denied access to formal educational opportunities, she cultivated her mind by being an avid reader and listener.)

     At some point in her youth, her family was compelled to move to Tennessee after her father picked up, by the collar, a white man who had attempted to strike him. Unita must have inherited that courageous self-defense streak. As a young girl, she had gone to “White town” to retrieve her family’s mail, when a White boy called her “nigger, nigger, nigger.” Unita and the boy “got into it.” Of course, her mother was beyond frightened, for fear of White reprisal, when her daughter returned home and detailed the incident to her; yet, she bravely hugged and supported her daughter. Unita said her mother “was ready to die for her child.” That same mother bolstered her daughter’s sagging self-esteem, which was said to be “hanging [by] a thread,” because Unita, a dark-skinned child, was teased, mercilessly, by her racially traumatized peers who were, clearly, acting out the racism they had already internalized. (quotes from Wright Edelman, pg.97)

     As a married adult, Unita returned to Mississippi when she and her husband acquired his deceased grandmother’s land; and she worked in cotton fields until she was 30-years-old. In 1964, during what has been named “Freedom Summer,” Stokely Carmicheal (later known as Kwame Toure), and other members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) spoke before her church congregation. She had already heard about the Freedom Riders, a group of interracial students who had boarded buses and rode south in defiance of segregated interstate travel laws. Carmicheal, who had been a brilliant 19-year-old student at Howard University at the time, had been one of many Freedom Riders who had been locked up in Parchman Farm, a notoriously savage Mississippi penitentiary.

     That day at Unita’s church, the SNCC activists asked for volunteers to register to vote. She stood up to get involved, but her husband “pulled her dress” to make her sit down until he decided to rise.  At that time, strict gender norms envisioned that the man would take the lead on important decisions of that sort. Unita has said, “I sat down and waited, and he didn’t get up, so I poked him until he did stand, and when he got up, I stood up, and I’ve been up ever since.” She signed on with SNCC as a “field worker” charged with persuading Black people to try to register to vote. (quotes from Wright-Edelman, pgs. 98-99)

     Attempting to vote in Mississippi, and throughout the entire south, up until the early 1970s, was an extremely perilous adventure. Black people were routinely beaten in ghastly ways, dismissed from their jobs, thrown off the land they sharecropped, and even killed by ignorant and “educated” Whites for daring to participate in the act of helping to elect the people who would govern them. After Reconstruction, Mississippi, with its Ku Klux Klan, its well-entrenched racist ideology, its segregationist lawmakers — and, later on, with its racist organizations, like the White Citizens’ Councils and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a legislative creation, — was one of the most ardent and active states in trying to establish the south as a neo-slave nation within a nation. This is true even though Mississippi had been the first state to send a Black man to the Senate (Hiram Revels) during Reconstruction. He bravely served in the U.S. Capitol — the so-called “Temple of Liberty” — which had been built by slaves.


     So, valiantly, Unita and a group of people, that included several schoolteachers, attempted to register to vote, but they were received by menacing, hateful white men in trucks, with guns, circling the courthouse — the courthouse they were not allowed inside of, unless they were going in the back door to pay their taxes. Unita said that was “the day I got angry… I thought nothing from nothing leaves nothing and we have nothing, and we’re going to have to stand for something. I was afraid, but that was the day I decided I was going to die for my freedom.” (Wright Edelman, pg.99)

     Unita and the others, all of whom had been cruelly directed to interpret the state’s Constitution, as a precondition to voting, were denied their right to vote — and they lost their jobs.  But that did not deter her from persuading her neighbors to try to register. And so began a life filled with meetings, infiltrators who tipped off police about the activists’ plans, a cross burning outside her home, jail time, and myriad lawsuits against the state of Mississippi. (Black people had to sue for practically everything, including receiving telephone service in their homes. Marian Wright Edelman,* the brilliant founder of theChildren’s Defense Fund in Washington DC, who was the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar, was one of the lawyers who waged some of the lawsuits for Unita and other Black citizens.)

     Needless to say, the activities of the local Black, and northern Black and White, community organizers enraged the local Whites.  (Unita has said that when the northern Whites came to Mississippi, “I think it was a reassurance that all White people was not like the ones that we were dealing with.” (Oh Freedom Over Me American Radioworks Interview, pg. 5) In addition to voter registration pursuits, Freedom Summer activists set up “Freedom Schools,” and lodged a challenge to the Democratic Party political establishment. (SNCC wanted to use grassroots strategies to help local Blacks in their attempt to establish political leadership.)

     The activists’ efforts were met with audacious violence from local Whites, including verbal and psychological abuse, rapes, physical torture, bombings, church burnings, and murder. There were nights when shots were fired into Unita’s and other residents’ homes.  Also, Unita and the other activists were compelled to drive on the backroads for fear of the Mississippi Highway Patrol, who were, in her words, “just as dangerous as the Klan.”

     Indeed, in June, during that Freedom Summer movement, civil rights workers James Chaney (African American), Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman (both White), went missing. Six-weeks later when their remains were found, they had been beaten, murdered, and buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Through investigations and court procedures it was discovered that the local deputy sheriff had jailed them on trumped up charges and released them to members of the Klan. The deputy sheriff, and the sheriff himself, were reputed klansmen, and one of the klansmen, who was convicted of manslaughter many years later, was a Baptist “preacher.” During the long search for the missing activists, the bodies of nine other Black men were found in swamps and woods. (The highly fictionalized Hollywood motion picture,Mississippi Burning, concerns the deaths of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman and the FBI’s involvement in the case.)

     Recognizing the importance of the Black vote, and determined to persevere, Unita took part in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)** to challenge the legitimacy of the all-White Democratic delegation that would go to Atlantic City, New Jersey for the purpose of nominating the Democratic presidential candidate in 1964. The racially integrated MFDP was formed because Blacks were denied participation in the regular Democratic Party in Mississippi. Indeed, only approximately 5% of Mississippi’s Black population had managed to get registered to vote; and, at that time, Mississippi was a solidly Democratic state and many of its political power-brokers were “Dixiecrats.”  The Dixiecrats were steadfastly invested in oppressing Black people and in the rigid maintenance of white supremacist policies and thought. One of the state’s then U.S. Senators, James O. Eastland, who was given to spouting offensive racist doggrel on the floor of the Senate, was one of its most vicious voices.

     Entertainers Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier bore the expenses for the bus that transported Unita, and the other activists, to the Democratic National Convention. It was an extraordinary ride that featured stunning drama. When the Klan attempted to turn the bus around with a roadblock they had erected, a woman on the bus, a modern day Harriet Tubman, held a knife to the bus driver’s neck and urged him to drive through the roadblock.

     At the Convention, The MFDP challenged the right of the all-White Mississippi delegation to represent the state Democratic party. Lodging constitutional arguments and citing Democratic party rules, they advocated for members of the MFDP to be issued credentials and seated. MFDP vice-chair, the great and incomparable ***Fannie Lou Hamer (“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”), gave a magnificent speech, broadcast to America, wherein she detailed the atrocities she and other Black people in Mississippi endured as a way of life. In her own inimitable style, she then concluded her remarks with a powerfully exquisite question:

     “If the Freedom party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” (MFDP Challenge to the Democratic Convention, pg.7)
In the end, they were unsuccessful in their quest to unseat the Mississippi Democratic “regulars,” but their organizational skill and extraordinary eloquence profoundly affected the national viewing audience. People credit their activities, wherein they challenged injustice and demanded fairness, for laying the foundation for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

     Upon returning home, Unita resumed her activist work in Mississippi. She co-founded the Mississippi Action for Community Education, a community development group that, among other things, assisted geographically distinct districts with the act of incorporating. Such a move allowed the former districts to have a formal government capable of making improvements such as wiring electricity in the towns, taking control over their own finances, and establishing and governing their own schools.

     Unita also aligned herself with the National Council of Negro Women, as they began a project with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Ford Foundation, to build low-income housing through a “sweat equity” program. Under this concept, people could help repair run-down properties and have it count as a down-payment on the home. Unita traveled all over the country helping organizers secure HUD dollars for such projects. By the time she was elected mayor in 1976, her work with HUD enabled her to bring decent housing to Mayersville. Also, drawing on her many significant and useful life experiences, she set about incorporating Mayersville, paving streets, installing the water system, and forming a police force, among other things.

     Sadly, in some ways, Unita’s marriage was a casualty of the personal growth and development she underwent as a member of the movement. At a time when women were supposed to be in the background, especially in the south, paying deference to their husbands, Unita was a woman in search of her freedom, her voice, and her destiny. As people began to seek out her opinion and her leadership more and more, the marriage collapsed. Interestingly, her son grew up to be a marksman in the United States Navy, in part, she thinks, because he saw people harassing his mother — including pointing guns in her face.

     Unita has never tired of pursuing more education, personal development and being a leader in society. Always an ardent learner, soaking up knowledge and information from the people she had worked with and from her manifold experiences, she applied for, and received, a National Rural Fellows Program scholarship.  Using her phenomenal life for college credit, she was able to work toward a master’s degree at Massachusetts. Also, she has held several prestigious positions, including coming full circle as the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Democratic Party! She was an Institute of Politics Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in 1991, and she has traveled extensively, including to China as the National President of the US-China People’s Friendship Association. Indeed, her honors and accomplishments are far too numerous to properly chronicle.

     Believing that government is for the people, by the people, and of the people, Unita Blackwell fearlessly has demanded respect and helped seize control of and reshape her community for the good. Honor this phenomenal woman, who still lives, while she can enjoy her flowers.

********************

*Among MANY other things, the brilliant Marian Wright Edelman was Hillary Clinton’s first boss out of Yale Law School (where Edelman herself, a Spelman graduate, went to law school).  Hillary worked as a lawyer at Wright Edelman’sChildren’s Defense Fund, and considers Wright Edelman one of her great mentors.

**The history of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is a fascinating one that should be studied by freedom-loving people everywhere.  The late Howard Zinn, a former Spelman College professor and the author of several books, including A People’s History of the United States, said, about the MFDP’s 1964 state convention:  “It was a beautifully-organized, crowded, singing assembly of laborers, farmers, housewives, from the farthest corners of Mississippi, and made the political process seem healthy for the first time in the state’s history.” In today’s political climate, where people who felt disenfranchised chose Trump, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is instructive.

***Fannie Lou Hamer is one of my all time heroines, along with Ida B. Wells Barnett. Both women’s lives should be studied over and over for the times when you will need strength and courage in this life.

Sources:

Wright-Edelman, Marian. (1999). Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors. HarperCollins Books: New York.

http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhome.htm. Freedom Movement History and Timeline, 1951-1968: 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Events, see section on the MFDP Challenge to the Democratic Convention

encyclopedia.com. Contemporary Black biography. Unita Blackwell. Copyright 2015, Thomas Gale.

americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/oh_freedom/interview_blackwell.html. Oh Freedom Over Me: Selected Interview: Unita Blackwell

Mills, K. (1992). Unita Blackwell: MacArthur Genuis Award Caps a Creative Political Life. Los Angeles Times Article Collections (articles.latimes.com/print/1992-08-02/opinion/op-5791_1_unita-blackwell.)

For further study on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party:

Teaching A Peoples’ History:  Zinn Education Project

zinnedproject.org/2014/08/freedom-democratic-party-state-convention/

 

 

One can take it for granted that the Black women featured on this healing site faced racism, discrimination, sexism, poverty, and unwarranted criticism on a grand scale — on top of all the other more mundane stressors that all women face. The women featured on this page exemplify our understanding of our trademark “SHE", wherein “SHE” is an acronym for “Surviving, Healing, and Evolving,”®.  It is easy to image that each of these women survived (some kind of hell), healed (to some degree, over and over) and evolved (or re-invented herself — perhaps many times over). So, every time you see the word “SHE” capitalized when reading about a featured African American Sister Woman Goddess of Victory, think about what it must have taken for her to survive, let alone heal (over and over) and maintain the Spirit necessary to evolve (that is, to continue growing and becoming greater and greater). We, too, must elevate our survival skills, heal ourselves over and over, and evolve into our greatness!

                     *******************************************

SHE (Surviving, Healing, and Evolving) (R) is a registered trademark.)

“Fighting Shirley Chisholm:”

America’s First Black Congresswoman

(c) by Dr. Rhonda Sherrod

“One of the most dismaying aspects of politics and public
life in America today is the increasingly closed nature of the
entire political process, particularly at the highest level.”
Shirley Chisholm, The Good Fight, 1973

FIRST. She was the first; and, boy, do we need a courageous, independent public servant like her today. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, served up the blueprint for the type of dynamic leadership the American electorate desperately needs today. She did not engage in the vile, bigoted, personal petty politics that are so common today, just as she eschewed simplemindedness and greed. Instead, SHE focused like a laser on the problems bedeviling the American people.  SHE was a woman of integrity intent on delivering solutions for the people.

Born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn, New York in 1924 — just five years before the start of the Great Depression — Shirley Chisholm was first elected to Congress in 1968, the same year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. In the 1920s, both of Shirley’s parents had been among the many West Indians who had sought to leave stultifying poverty behind by immigrating to New York.  They met while both were in pursuit of the “American Dream.”

The family struggled financially, but Shirley was a stellar student. On scholarship at Brooklyn College, she explored many avenues for expression, before she received her degree, with honors, in sociology. (Subsequently, her minor in Spanish would allow her to communicate with Hispanic constituents as she campaigned and governed.) Professionally, she worked as an educator, a director of daycare centers, and as an educational consultant for the city of New York. She also earned a master’s degree in early childhood education from Columbia University, the Ivy League institution that conferred Barack Obama’s undergraduate degree.

In 1964, She became only the second Black woman to serve in the New York state legislature. While there, the bills she sponsored reflected her activist passions — protecting the rights of black people, women and the poor, as well as promoting educational initiatives. She insured employment insurance coverage for (disproportionately Black) domestic workers, insisted that female teachers not lose their tenure while absent on maternity leave, and worked to secure financial aid for poor college students. With a solid legislative foundation to stand on, SHE ran for Congress.

“Ladies and Gentlemen … this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through, she would often say as she campaigned for congress. She was also fond of saying she was “unbought and unbossed,” which was to become the title of her 1970 autobiography that every serious student of politics should read. Describing her district, Shirley wrote, “My Twelfth Congressional District of Brooklyn is mostly composed of poor neighborhoods with all the problems of poverty in an aggravated form: slum housing, high unemployment, too few medical services, high crime rate, neglected schools — the whole list. About 69% of my people are Black and Puerto Rican. The rest are Jewish, Polish, Ukranian and Italian. Speaking for them at this moment in history is a great responsibility because they have been unrepresented and ignored for so long, and their needs are so many and so urgent.” Once in office, the congresswoman would fight anyone, including members of the Democratic party leadership, if SHE perceived that person as underperforming in his or her obligation to fight for the people. She called herself “the people’s candidate,” and she was intent on “focus[ing] attention on the nation’s problems.”

Unwilling to wait her turn before asserting herself, as was expected of all newbies, Shirley’s first speech as a freshman legislator on the floor of the United States Congress, in 1969, was a powerful meditation against the war in Vietnam. In so agitating, she picked up where Dr. King, a fierce opponent of the War, had left off when he was assassinated in 1968. Further, she channeled the language of the great Sojourner Truth,* when she noted that she would refuse to vote for any defense appropriation “until the time comes when our values and priorities have been turned right-side up again” [italics added].

Unable to apprehend why she should be assigned to the Committee on Agriculture when SHE represented an urban district, Shirley objected to that appointment. Noting that there “are a lot more veterans in my district than trees,” she accepted a re-assignment to the Veteran’s Affairs Committee. In 1971, she obtained a seat on the Committee on Education and Labor, before becoming the second woman, and the first Black woman, to serve on the powerful Rules Committee (1977). She also worked on the Committee on Organization Study and Review (the Hansen Committee) which reformed the manner in which committee chairman selections were made. Always seeking ways to assert collective power, SHE was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus (1971) and the Congressional Women’s Caucus (1977).

Shirley was at the forefront of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s. Although SHE recognized that the odds against her were “hopeless” when SHE ran for president in 1972, in her opinion her candidacy was about the “refusal to accept the status quo,” which, of course, dictated that Blacks, all women and the poor were to be subjugated. Like President Barack Obama after her, SHE had been a community activist and had a profound understanding of the need for systemic change. In her book, The Good Fight, Shirley said, “I ran for the Presidency in order to crack a little more of the ice which in recent years has congealed to nearly immobilize our political system and demoralize people.”

And run she did. Battling virulent racism, injurious sexism (in the White, Black, and Hispanic communities), and operating with very little money, Shirley Chisholm, nevertheless, appeared on 12 primary ballots and garnered 152 delegate votes (or 10% of the total) at the Democratic National Convention. As if emphasizing the point that we need statesmen and women like her today, SHE ran for president speaking out on gun control, police brutality, poverty, income inequality, and what we now call the prison industrial complex — the system that has unfairly decimated many areas of the black community. Manifesting an unshakeable belief in justice and equality, fueled by electrifying fearlessness, by the time she finished, everybody knew “Fighting Shirley Chisholm.” A 1974 American Gallop Poll found that she was tied with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India as the 6th most admired woman in the world [emphasis added].

Shirley Chisholm left congress in 1983, formed the National Political Congress of Black Women and taught in South Hadley, Massachusetts at Mt. Holyoke College, one of the prestigious Seven Sisters Colleges. She also campaigned for her political heir, Jesse Jackson, when he ran for president in 1984 and 1988. She declined President Bill Clinton’s nomination for U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but continued to write and lecture until, having fought the good fight, she died on January 1, 2005.

“Fighting Shirley Chisholm”

Shirley Chisholm said she wanted to be remembered not as the first Black congresswoman or the first woman to run for president, but as a woman who “dared to be myself.” She said when people remembered her she wanted them “…to say Shirley Chisholm had guts.” In 2015, as he, posthumously, awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, President Obama said, “…I’m proud to say it — Shirley Chisholm had guts.”

So, let us meditate on having the guts to be our authentic selves, for that is when we win. When we allow people to falsify our consciousness, setting us off on a chase for something that we may not even want, we lose. When we don’t have the courage to use our gifts, it causes an erosion of our spirit and it diminishes our power. So, fight a good fight to use your gifts and talents, even if you have to fight yourself! That’s just a part of the healing. Shirley certainly summonsed up the strength to fight and do what others said she couldn’t do, and we are all the better for it! Just ask the President.

“I will fight until I can’t fight anymore. I don’t mind the challenge.”

Shirley Chisholm

 

**In a famous speech, the great Black abolitionist and suffragette, Sojourner Truth is reported to have said,  “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it; the men better let them.

 

Latest News & Events 

EXCITING NEWS!!

 

The BOOK by 

Dr. Rhonda Sherrod:

 

 Surviving, Healing, and Evolving

 

will arrive SOON!! 

 

Quote of the Week:

December 3, 2017

 

"There is a notion out there that black people enjoy the Sisyphean struggle against racism. In fact, most of us live for the day when we can struggle against anything else.  But having been, by that very racism, pinned into ghettoes, both metaphorical and real, our options for struggle are chosen long before we are born.  And so we struggle out of fear for our children.  We struggle out of fear for ourselves.  We struggle to avoid our feelings, because to actually consider all that was taken, to understand that it was taken systematically, that the taking is essential to American and echoes down through the ages, could make you crazy."

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, 

We Were Eight Years in Power:  An American Tragedy

 

Quote of the Month -

 

December

 

 

"...she had nothing to fall back on; not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything.  And out of the profound desolation of her reality she may well have invented herself."

 

Toni Morrison

Brilliant multiple prize-winning author

 

 

"I am a woman -- gorgeously designed, brilliant, charming, mysterious, funny, bewitching, cool, and, most of all, uniquely purposed. I am my own phenomenal being, and I own and govern myself!"

 

 Dr. Rhonda Sherrod

QUOTE FOR THE SOUL:

 

"Dipped in Chocolate, Bronzed in Elegance, Enameled with Grace, Toasted with Beauty.

My Lord, She's a Black Woman." 

 

Dr. Yosef

Ben-Jochannan 

GET TO KNOW YOURSELF

BE TRUE TO YOURSELF

 

What makes you happy?

LOVE YOURSELF

BE AN ORIGINAL!

DO WHAT YOU CAME INTO THE WORLD TO DO.  

FIND YOUR PURPOSE, SO YOU CAN BE HAPPY!

Print Print | Sitemap Recommend this page Recommend this page
© The Need To Know Group TM