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Death Lurked in Innocent Places for Civil Rights Workers

An innocent-looking flower like this one growing outside the home of Unita Blackwell nearly got her murdered

Tragedy could come easy in Mississippi’s turbulent Civil Rights Era, even from innocuous places.

Several patches of rewilded daffodils sprout every spring beneath the windows of Unita Blackwell’s old Mayersville shack. Known to residents as “Freedom House,” the shack served as a safe place for civil rights workers during Mississippi’s dangerous Freedom Summer of 1964. The blossoms are the remnants of a flowerbed Blackwell maintained as her own personal sanctuary. Perhaps they brought a modicum of beauty to a life she described as plagued by grinding poverty. Whatever their story, these cheery, yellow plants nearly killed the future mayor of Mayersville and added Blackwell’s name to a long list of political martyrs who perished trying to bring democracy to the South.

In her book Barefootin: Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom, Blackwell recounts a potentially deadly incident outside her own home.

Mississippi was a dangerous place for Black people and their allies. At night, terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan could ransack a home, kidnap its occupants and set fire to the building. Mississippi sheriffs were overwhelmingly white, and frequently aligned with the terrorists. They rarely made arrests. In fact, deputies often worked with the Klan and were sometimes Klan members themselves. County district attorneys were also white, and rarely pressed for prosecution unless pressured. Additionally, trial juries and grand juries were white because Mississippi rarely allowed Black voter registration up until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and juries are drawn only from registered voters.

Robed and hooded women gather among tables of books and pamphlets at a 1965 Ku Klux Klan rally in Hattiesburg, MS. Moncrief Collection photograph, item#:323, Mississippi Department of Archives & History

With the justice system and general citizenry on its side, the Klan owned the night in large swathes of Mississippi territory, but not every community tolerated them. The Klan had to step carefully in majority-Black areas, where they were outnumbered. In these areas, the Klan resorted to surrogates.

“In the daylight, the Klan would get a poor Black guy to do their dirty work,” Blackwell wrote. “They could always find some head-hanging-down Black man who would do whatever a white man wanted for a little pocket change.”

Blackwell recalled looking out her window one day and seeing a Black man with a pint of whiskey in his hand. The man was trampling her plants into the dirt.

Blackwell reacted as might any homeowner. “I walked over toward him and ordered him out of my yard.”

The man responded with curses and a warning that she was “going to get what was coming” to her.

“You think you’re one of them smart niggers,” he shouted.

Blackwell sensed more to the situation than whiskey and disdain. The man had drawn her from her house with an overt, baffling act of vandalism. She recalled no clear motivation for his behavior, no history of animosity between herself and the man. The in-your-face nature of the vandalism felt calculated, sinister.

Without another word, Blackwell turned and returned to her house. When she looked back, she saw the pistol in the intruder’s hand.

“He had pulled a gun on me and was ready to shoot me. But I made it back into the house.”

Sometime later, that same man admitted to her that a white man had put him up to the assassination. Had he succeeded, Blackwell wrote that the county justice system would likely have refused to prosecute either the assassin or his contractor. The system ignored Black-on Black crime, even murder.

“The Black fellow was supposed to get me into an argument and then shoot me. The shooting would have been ‘legitimate’ then, in the horrible ways of the day,” Blackwell recounts.

Blackwell built a more modern second home on her property years after this incident. There are no daffodils growing alongside her second home today, but it is easy to forget the prevailing sense of threat that she and champions like her endured.

The aging heroes of Mississippi's Civil Rights Movement still head households in almost every Mississippi town today. They are the grandmothers and grandfathers who can speak to their own participation in marches and protests, and some can recall personal accounts of massive retaliatory layoffs for daring to register to vote. Some of these elders play down the peril that stalked them at the time. For many, it is not their nature to laud how often they looked over their shoulders, or were fearful of random headlights coming up behind them on a lonely country road. But the threat was real. At the time of this website's production, Mississippi is but 60 years away from an age when the assassination of a mother in Mayersville was condoned by its own legal system.


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