Unita Blackwell, 86, Dies; Rights Crusader and Winner of Historic Election

In Issaquena County — long one of the poorest and least populated counties in the United States — she was one of eight African-Americans who tried to register to vote in 1964. As they stood outside the courthouse, white men with guns surrounded them. Finally, they were allowed to go inside, one at a time, to register. But they had to take a literacy test, which was rigged against them, and all of them failed.

This only fueled Ms. Blackwell’s determination. She joined several lawsuits that challenged voter discrimination, although in the Jim Crow South most such efforts went nowhere until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1965, Ms. Blackwell sued the Issaquena County Board of Education, which had suspended 300 students, including her son, for wearing freedom pins. She also sued to desegregate the school district. The courts — first state and then federal — held that the students could not wear the pins, but that the schools had to be desegregated.

In 1967, Ms. Blackwell was among those who met Senator Robert F. Kennedy when he made his historic visit to the Delta to see the poverty there first hand. “We have children who have never had a glass of milk,” she told him.

Her election as mayor of Mayersville, which at the time had fewer than 400 residents, gave her the chance to bring about the change she sought. She paved the streets, installed streetlights and sewers, and fought for better housing.

She went to China in 1973 with Ms. MacLaine, whom she had known from the civil rights movement. Ms. Blackwell proved popular with the Chinese and ended up going back at least 15 times, including to Beijing for a conference in conjunction with the World Conference on Women in 1995.

For the rest of her life Ms. Blackwell would exhort people to organize and demand their rights.

“A small group of abolitionists writing and speaking eventually led to the end of slavery,” she wrote in her memoir. “A few stirred-up women brought about women’s voting.” The people, she said, are the ones who bring about change. “Us. We are the movers. The president and Congress follow us.”