Civil Rights worker and Delta resident Unita Blackwell knew African-Americans would need to win elections and hold government positions to truly change the South. She also knew that winning small, local elections was easier within an intimate community with a preexisting, reliable base of allies.. But what exactly was her community?
In the early 1970s, the “town” of Mayersville was just a small, unincorporated village tucked away along the Mississippi River, in lightly populated Issaquena County. The first choice for a prospective politician in such a rural setting would be to run for a county seat, but competition was fierce. While Blackwell had built a name for herself in Mayersville, the county itself was sparse but sprawling. Other hamlets had their own local personalities, many with more money and resources. Blackwell, by comparison, had spent most of her life a sharecropper.
These were the new, more liberated years of post-Voting Rights Act America, and wondrous change was underway. Not only was Mississippi getting its first taste of true democracy, but President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty was opening new financing measures for infrastructure development in the nation's neglected rural districts. The Clean Water Act of 1972 had set new environmental goals for cleaning up lakes and streams, providing funds for towns to install cleaner, more efficient sewer systems. These were the years before the Reagan administration began capping federal money for cleanup measures with the 1987 Clean Water Act and leaving impoverished local taxpayers to meet EPA requirements on their own. At the program’s onset, however, money was flowing to towns and communities that were still using outhouses. Getting Mayersville in on the action required organization.
Blackwell and several allies began considering the future of their modest home. In her book Barefootin', Blackwell says she realized the value of incorporation at a Mississippi Action for Community Education, Inc. (MACE) meeting. MACE, a non-profit rural development organization created in 1967 to stimulate economic development in the Delta, had nabbed a grant from the Mott Foundation to finance research on incorporation.
Mississippi’s rules for incorporating a new community require at least two-thirds of registered voters to approve the transition. It wasn’t hard to convince people in Mayersville of the rewards. Issaquena County’s white-led government was not required to pave streets or install a sewer system, and it had made no such effort by 1970. The 444 people of Mayersville were on their own.
Residents petitioned Issaquena County Chancery court for a charter opportunity and won their new designation after delivering information on local property values. Blackwell said in her book that white residents joined Black voters in support of this united goal for the first time probably since Reconstruction.
Allies outside the community were already gearing up to upgrade the territory even before Mayersville met its charter requirements, according to Harvey Johnson Jr., who helped the Mississippi Research and Development Center (MRDC) write and manage grants for new town administrations.
“When I was at the Mississippi Research and Development Center, Myersville was one of six Black-managed towns we worked with, providing technical assistance and community development,” Johnson told unitablackwellhistory.org.
With financial help from The Rockefeller Foundation’s 5M Project, MRDC was just one organization setting out to help towns with fledgling minority mayors. The boost was critical to new administrations in places like Mayersville, which struggled to recover from more than a century of oppression, violence, and criminal indifference.
Mayersville was not the only majority-Black community straining under growing pains and fighting to upgrade itself. Other majority-Black communities were also looking to take advantage of federal subsidies. But, unlike Mayersville, most preexisting Delta towns had an entrenched white minority in charge of government. Many of these administrations were loathe to work with diverse incoming administrations.
A New Voting Army
The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 spurred a rush of new Black voters, which in turn heralded a flood of new minority political candidates. Mayersville resident Willie Bunton, born in 1935, told unitablackwellhistory.org that he was personally involved in the political tug of war.
“Around the 1960s they saw we meant business, and Black folks was meeting once a week, every Tuesday night at a church, and we became a strong coalition,” said Bunton. “By that time the voter registration law (Voting Rights Act of 1965) had passed we was all registered to vote.
Bunton said the first Black elected official he remembers in Issaquena County was District 5 Justice Court Judge Matthew Walker. During that same period, county resident Marion Smith won a constable seat in District 3. Later, in 1972, Bunton himself won a seat as an Issaquena County supervisor—but only after a nasty legal fight over segregationist election practices.
Klan terrorism was in decline, but white legislators in Jackson still resisted democracy with bad-faith legislation.
Politicians like Bunton, Judge Walker and Constable Smith stood a more favorable chance of winning their own majority-Black districts. Knowing this, the primarily white Mississippi Legislature amended state law in 1966 to allow an "at large" county electorate to choose county supervisors. Voting “at large” allows the majority-white county to select leaders for individual districts, including those in majority-Black territory. Bunton said the results were predictable.
“(The first time I ran) I lost by 95 votes, so I went and got the chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and we took Issaquena County to court over that law,” Bunton said.
Bunton and other Black plaintiffs, including Mayersville resident and MFDP Chairman Clarence Hall, sued the Board of Election Commissioners and the county board of supervisors to end at-large election schemes. Bunton’s case, Hall v. Issaquena County Board of Supervisors (No. 71-2312), ended in success.
Other plaintiffs sued additional county boards over the same practice, and in 1971 a U.S. District Court ordered new elections to be in compliance with the “one man, one vote” mandate of the United States Constitution. Additionally, the court nullified the positions of supervisors elected through at-large schemes from “malapportioned districts” and ordered all politicians who won an illegally stacked seat “not serve for the regular four-year term of office but only provisionally, and for the period of time needed to arrange for the new election and until their successors shall have been legally chosen and qualified.”
The legal decision dealt a huge blow to many segregationist tactics and allowed Black voters to finally elect politicians who represented their interests. It also allowed people like Blackwell to work within a bigger, more influential group of minority political leaders, including alderman and county supervisors, to steer construction and renovation projects to Black communities.
But many incoming Black mayors still faced resentment from outgoing white administrations. The old guard were often grudging and pernicious about surrendering their office. The bitterness sparked various small-minded acts of vengeance. While Blackwell had the benefit of walking into a newly created mayor's office, other Black mayors discovered lost or stolen office records, vandalism, and countless acts of petty grievance.
Johnson said he recalled new Black mayors complaining of valuable town records burned in the office safe, and white-dominated volunteer fire departments refusing to surrender responsibilities to new administrations. Outgoing administrations also sometimes refused to pass down institutional knowledge to their replacements, including city contracts, budget information and bureaucratic techniques, creating information vacuums that took months, even years, to surmount.
As Mayersville’s first mayor, Blackwell was personally spared this hardship, but there was still plenty to learn about running a new city government.
Nobody Works Alone
Ally organizations stepped in to help. The Mississippi Research and Development Center (MRDC) was among many groups offering resources and training. New administrations had no municipal budget to fund grant writers, so the MRDC acted as grant writers and managed many of the projects that resulted of their proposals. Much their work involved partnering with national organizations to provide potable water to underdeveloped communities.
A successor to President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) were vital for many rural Black communities. Harvey Johnson Jr. said about 20 percent of Mississippi municipalities didn’t have sanitary sewer in 1979 and 1980. Thankfully, CDBG money did not require expensive matching funds from communities with scant property and sales tax revenue.
Other socially conscious organizations, like the Mississippi Institute for Small Towns (MIST) spent the late 1970s helping Blackwell and other Black administrations build infrastructure. These partnerships included Mississippi towns like Winstonville, Pace, Gunnison, Jonestown, and Falcon.
Construction was a massive undertaking, however. White planters had spent the last 300 years siphoning every ounce of wealth from Black communities. In many places, homes were too primitive or small to even accommodate a toilet. Many shacks only had one or two rooms; installing a toilet would mean stuffing it in a living room or kitchen. In the beginning, before national and local programs began focusing on new habitation, Johnson said some organizations were adding modern bathroom additions to old shack holdovers from the days of slavery.
Prior to CDBG-style development, construction in Black neighborhoods was fractured and piecemeal. White administrations had spent decades funneling revenue to upgrade pipes and infrastructure in white neighborhoods, leaving Black neighborhoods with insufficient water lines.
The neighboring town of Shaw presented a classic example of race-based neglect to the Fifth Circuit Court in the 1971 case Hawkins v. Town of Shaw. Shaw resident Andrew Hawkins sued the town mayor and board of Alderman for withholding infrastructure development in Black neighborhoods in 1969. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi initially sided with white town leaders, arguing that the administration was merely “operating on a pay-as-you-go (style of) management, (and had) … simply not made improvements of the size and character that might be expected under more liberal minded government.”
The lower court also tried to argue that this conservative management style was “… apparently, the kind of local government preferred by Shaw’s citizens,” however neglectful. The court made no mention of the fact that for decades voter “preferences” were influenced by Black disenfranchisement.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals took a different view, however, and acknowledged the racism. It determined that “nearly 98% of all homes … on unpaved streets in Shaw are occupied by blacks … (and) [n]inety-seven percent of the homes not served by sanitary sewers are in black neighborhoods.” Judges also pointed out that “while the town has acquired a significant number of medium and high intensity mercury vapor street lighting fixtures, every one of the lights had been installed in white neighborhoods.” It also discovered “similar statistical evidence of grave disparities in … surface water drainage, water mains, fire hydrants, and traffic control apparatus,” all of which the U.S. District Court had somehow failed to notice.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals lauded “a federal grant” that had already “been approved to resolve some of the problems with regard to water pressure and fire hydrants” in Shaw, and it urged towns and communities to make use of them.
Blackwell and the people of Mayersville, and many others, were only too happy to comply.