Archive for the ‘Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’ Tag

Feast of Unita Blackwell (May 13)   Leave a comment

Above:   Mayersville, Mississippi

Image Source = Google Earth

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UNITA ZELMA BROWN BLACKWELL (MARCH 18, 1933-MAY 13, 2019)

African-American Civil Rights Activist, Rural Community Development Specialist, and Mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi

Born U. Z. Brown

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Politics is not just about voting one day every four years.  Politics is the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the road we walk on.

–Unita Blackwell

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Unita Blackwell‘s Christian faith compelled her to resist systems of oppression and leave communities better than she found them.  Her faith led her to seek intercultural understanding on the local, national, and international levels.

U. Z, Brown, born in Lula, Mississippi, on March 18, 1933, grew up in the Jim Crow U.S. South.  Laws kept African Americans “in their place,” or subordinate to white people.  Our saint, the daughter of sharecroppers Willie Brown and Virda Mae Brown, was originally just U. Z,–initials, no name that abbreviated to them.  The Browns believed on a plantation and in fear of the estate’s owner.  In 1936, Willie fled the plantation.  His family joined him in Memphis, Tennessee, shortly thereafter.  The couple separated in 1938.  Virda Mae and her mother moved to West Helena, Arkansas.

Jim Crow laws restricted the educational opportunities of African Americans in West Helena.  The agricultural economy took precedence over schooling.  Furthermore, African Americans could not attend high school; their public education terminated at the eighth grade.  U. Z. chose her new name, Unita Zelma, in the sixth grade.  She also completed the eighth grade.  Her formal education did not progress until the 1980s.

Our saint met and married Jeremiah Blackwell, a cook for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The site of the wedding was Clarksdale, Mississippi.  The couple had one child, Jeremiah, Jr., born on July 2, 1957.  The Blackwells moved to Mayersville, Mississippi, a small town and the seat of Issaquena County.  Mayersville remained our saint’s home for most of the remainder of her life.  She active in her Baptist church, taught Sunday School.

Blackwell became a civil rights activist in the summer of 1964.  That June, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) conducted a voter registration drive in Issaquena County.  Jeremiah and Unita tried to register to vote, but initially failed the the registration test, designed to cause people to fail.  Both of them lost their jobs for their trouble.  Unita eventually passed the registration test a few months later.  I have found no information about when Jeremiah successfully registered to vote.

That summer, with the aid and encouragement of Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), Blackwell embarked upon activism.  She became a project manager with SNCC, directing voter registration drives in the state.  That summer, she also attended the Democratic National Convention as a delegate from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Blackwell paid a stiff price for her activism; police arrested her more than 70 times.  Yet she remained undeterred.  Our saint helped to introduce Head Start for African-American children in Mississippi in 1965.  Our saint and her husband successfully sued the Issaquena County Board of Education in 1965.  The local elementary school principal had expelled more than 300 African-American children for a range of alleged offenses, including wearing SNCC pins.  The federal district court agreed with the Blackwells.  It also ordered the integration of Issaquena County public schools by fall 1965.  The federal court of appeals upheld the district court’s ruling.  The public schools did not integrate until 1970, though.  Freedom schools for African-American chilldren operated through the summer of 1970.

Blackwell became an expert in rural community development, in the context of rural poverty.  In the late 1960s and the 1970s, she worked with the National Council of Negro Women on the issue of low-income housing.  Our saint encouraged poor people across the United States to construct their own housing.  She served as the Mayor of Mayersville from 1977 to 2001.  In that capacity, in the poor, rural Mississippi Delta, Blackwell expanded the range of basic services the local government provided to citizens.  The quality of life for all residents, especially poor and the vulnerable, improved.  Mayor Blackwell’s formal education leapfrogged from the eighth grade to a graduate degree in 1983.  In 1982 and 1983, she studied for her Master of Regional Planning degree from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.

Blackwell’s efforts extended to the national level, too.  She was a member of the Democratic National Committee.  Our saint also attended the national Energy Summit at Camp David in 1979.  President Jimmy Carter invited her.  That year our saint also began to sit on the U.S. National Commission on the International Year of the Child.  Furthermore, Blackwell was a Fellow of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, in 1991-1992.  She also ran in the primary election for U.S. House of Representatives in 1993, the year after she won one of the MacArthur Fellowships, or “genius grants.”

Blackwell also worked on the international front.  She, interested in U.S.-Chinese cultural exchanges, made sixteen trips to the People’s Republic of China, starting in 1973.  Furthermore, she served as the President of the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association (founded in 1974) for six years.  And, in 1995, our saint was a delegate to the Non-Government Organizations Forum, related to the International Conference on Women, in Beijing.

Sadly, dementia afflicted Blackwell during her final years.  It set in by 2007/2008.  Our saint, 86 years old, died in a nursing home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on May 13, 2019.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MARCH 30, 2020 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT INNOCENT OF ALASKA, EQUAL TO THE APOSTLES AND ENLIGHTENER OF NORTH AMERICA

THE FEAST OF CORDELIA COX, U.S. LUTHERAN SOCIAL WORKER, EDUCATOR, AND RESETTLER OF REFUGEES

THE FEAST OF JOHN MARRIOTT, ANGLICAN PRIEST AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF JOHN WRIGHT BUCKHAM, U.S. CONGREGATIONALIST MINISTER, THEOLOGIAN, AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF SAINT JULIA ALVAREZ MENDOZA, MEXICAN ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST AND MARTYR, 1927

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Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image.

Grant us grace to contend fearlessly against evil and to make no peace with oppression.

Help us, like your servant Unita Blackwell, to work for justice among people and nations,

to the glory of your name, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Hosea 2:18-23

Psalm 94:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

Luke 6:20-36

–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), 60

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Feast of Fannie Lou Hamer (March 14)   2 comments

fannie-lou-hamer-1964

Above:  Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964

Image Source = Library of Congress

Photographer = Warren K. Leffler

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-ppmsc-01267

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FANNIE LOU TOWNSEND HAMER (OCTOBER 6, 1917-MARCH 14, 1977)

Prophet of Freedom

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I’m never sure anymore when I leave home whether I’ll get back or not.  Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed.  But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom.  I’m not backing off that and no one will have to cover the ground I walk as far as freedom is concerned.

–Fannie Lou Hamer, quoted by Danny Duncan Collum in Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday, Cloud of Witnesses (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2005), page 109

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Christianity is being concerned about your fellow man, not building a million-dollar church while people are starving right around the corner.  Christ was a revolutionary person, out there where it is happening.  That’s what God is all about, and that’s where I get my strength.

–Fannie Lou Hamer, quoted in Robert Ellsberg, All Saints:  Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York, NY:  The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), page 118

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Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints (1997), lists Fannie Lou Hamer as the saint for March 14 and describes her as a “Prophet of Freedom.”  That is an accurate description.

Fannie Lou Townsend, born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, on October 6, 1917, was always poor.  She was the youngest of 20 children born to sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, the poorest region of a state (infamous for its open, institutional racism and reactionary politics) that has long been the butt of jokes about poor states.

Thank God for Mississippi!

has long been the exclamation of citizens of other impoverished states grateful that their states are Forty-Ninth or Forty-Eighth–but not Fiftieth–in the prevention of scabies or some other disease, or in certain educational attainment statistics, et cetera.  As an old joke says, we know that the inventor of the toothbrush hailed from Mississippi because, if he had come from any other state, it would be a teethbrush.

1951

Above:  Northwestern Mississippi

Scanned from Hammond’s Complete World Atlas (1951)

Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor

Our saint, who suffered from childhood polio, had a fourth-grade education and also became a sharecropper.  In 1945 she married Perry “Pap” Hamer, a tractor driver on a nearby plantation.  The Hamers adopted two daughters, Dorothy and Virgie, and worked on plantations in Sunflower County, Mississippi.  Our saint knew both hard work and little reward for it:

Sometimes I be working in the fields and I get so tired, I say to the people picking cotton with us, “Hard as we have to work for nothing, there must be some way we can change this.

–Quoted by Danny Duncan Collum in Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday, Cloud of Witnesses (2005), page 103

Hamer also knew the injustice of forced sterilization.  In 1961, while she was having surgery for the removal of a tumor, the surgeon sterilized her as part of a state program targeting poor African-American women.

In August 1962, at the age of 44 years, Hamer became politically active.  She attended a voter registration rally sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Immediately she began to attempt to register to vote–a right the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) to the Constitution of the United States theoretically prevented anyone from denying her on the basis of her race.  She succeeded in January 1963.  By then, however, the Hamers’ landlord had evicted the family and confiscated their possessions in repayment for alleged debts.  These were acts in retaliation for her registering to vote.  Our saint became a field secretary for SNCC.  Her work was to encourage African Americans to register to vote and to communicate the plight of Southern African Americans to Northern whites.  There were consequences.  She received death threats.  The State Sovereignty Commission kept the family under surveillance.  Also, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Council (now the Conservative Citizens’ Council), and J. Edgar Hoover‘s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) harassed the Hamers.

In 1963, when Hamer and some other civil rights workers were returning from Charleston, South Carolina, police in Winona, Montgomery County, Mississippi, arrested them and incarcerated them for several days.  Officers presided over beatings of these activists.  Our saint suffered the effects of the beatings for the rest of her life; a blood clot in her left eye impaired her vision.  She also suffered kidney damage.  Hamer might have died shortly, for she overheard officers plotting to kill the activists and dispose of their bodies.  Fortunately, local activists and the federal Department of Justice arranged for their release.

From 1964 to 1968 Hamer was active the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which she helped to form and in which she exercised leadership.  She sought unsuccessfully to unseat the state Democratic Party’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1964.  She also ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965.  Hamer did succeed, however, in influencing the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  She also served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and opposed the Vietnam War, which she understood in the context of human rights for poor people.  In addition, she helped to organize the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968.  All of her actions stemmed from her Christian faith.

Other actions that stemmed from Hamer’s Christian faith were local in nature; she sought to improve conditions in Ruleville and Sunflower County.  Our saint helped to bring the Head Start program to the area, raised funds for building 200 low-income housing units, helped to found a day care center, and was instrumental in bringing a garment factory to town.  Our saint also organized the Freedom Farm Cooperative (ultimately 680 acres), to acquire land for agricultural workers forced off the land they had been farming due to the mechanization of agriculture.

Hamer suffered from a variety of health issues at the end of her life.  She had diabetes.  Also, the effects of juvenile polio and the beatings in Winona in 1963 remained with her.  Furthermore, she had breast cancer.  Hamer died at Mound Bayou Community Hospital, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, on March 14, 1977.  She was 59 years old.

Hamer understood herself to be engaged in a struggle against forces of spiritual darkness.  She was correct.  How else should one categorize Jim Crow laws, a state program of forced sterilization, government surveillance of peaceful activists, and official and unofficial intimidation of them?  And how else should one label consent of these foul deeds?  It has happened here.  Much has changed, but much has also remained the same.  Certain state governments have, in recent years, instituted programs to suppress minority voting.  They have been careful to avoid using openly racist language while doing so, but their actions have targeted minorities.  If Hamer were alive today, she would have much work to do and much opposition to overcome.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JANUARY 20, 2017 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT FABIAN, BISHOP OF ROME AND MARTYR

THE FEAST OF SAINTS DEICOLA AND GALL, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONKS; AND OTHMAR, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT AT SAINT GALLEN

THE FEAST OF SAINTS EUTHYMIUS THE GREAT AND THEOCRISTUS, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOTS

THE FEAST OF HARRIET AUBER, ANGLICAN HYMN WRITER

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O God, your Son came among us to serve and not to be served, and to give his life for the life of the world.

Lead us by his love to serve all those to whom the world offers no comfort and little help.

Through us give hope to the hopeless,

love to the unloved,

peace to the troubled,

and rest to the weary,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Hosea 2:18-23

Psalm 94:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

Luke 6:20-36

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60

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