Unita Blackwell began focusing on fair K-12 education as early as 1965. Economic pressure had pushed her from her own school after 8th grade, and now she had her own son, Jeremiah Jr., to think of—as well as the education of hundreds of neglected Black students struggling with the Delta's lopsided, race-based school systems.
“(Education) is very important to us,” she told University of Southern Mississippi Oral History program interviewer Mike Garvey. “A lot of people don’t think that it is, but it’s very important. … My son split my soul when he said, ‘you know, Mama, I sure was glad when you got me through those first years.’”
Mississippi white society had successfully smothered the spark of hope from the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision. The court had concluded “separate but equal” to be fundamentally unequal and required the desegregation of all public schools. Encouraged by the decision, Mississippi branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) quickly pushed the state to enforce the new ruling in the 1950s. Their push-plan, called the “Atlanta Declaration,” suggested first petitioning schools to desegregate and “reorganize” according to the supreme court decision, followed by federal litigation if they refused.
However, Mississippi white society had an army of segregationist lawyers and bankers ready to push back. They formed infamous “Citizens’ Councils” to oppose NAACP legal filings. Unlike the KKK, which acted as white society’s barbaric, bloody fist, the legal councils were the ‘thinking’ tools of discrimination, and included powerful bankers, financiers and business owners. The group used the white-dominated local courts to stifle lawsuits--and the banking system to financially punish citizens who filed them.
With this tactic the NAACP’s greatest strength was also its biggest weakness. The NAACP traditionally worked by recruiting local residents with the expertise and charisma to organize. Like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP relied upon leaders who knew county and state systems, their peculiarities, and their participants.
Mary Elizabeth King worked in Mississippi under Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Press Secretary Julian Bond during the pivotal years of the late 1960s. King told our researchers in a 2022 interview that “The point was to diversify, to find talented people, then to help them develop,”
However, these local people were vulnerable to homegrown villainy. Targeted in the courts by racist law enforcement and district attorneys, denied credit by segregationist bankers, threatened with unemployment by white employers and hounded by the Klan, Citizens’ Councils effectively forced Black activists to boycott the NAACP. By the end of 1955 the NAACP had surrendered all of its desegregation efforts in the state, and Mississippi ground on with “separate but equal,” even though it’s version of “equal” meant spending three-fourth of its education budget on white students. The state also continued to deprive Black students of valuable education time by splitting their school session in the spring and fall seasons, so Black students could help sow and harvest white farmers’ crops.
But Mississippi youth began pouring renewed vigor into the desegregation effort in the 1960s. Organizations like the SNCC were already training residents how to peacefully register to vote and defy employers and law enforcement. This included tactical training for peacefully opposing segregated schools. Blackwell, an SNCC member, saw an opening in her son’s own school system.
Jeremiah Blackwell, Jr., was a 3rd grade student at Mayersville Elementary when roughly 30 students at nearby Henry Weathers Highschool for Issaquena County Black students began showing up in class with SNCC buttons. The buttons, which depicted the organization’s emblematic icon of a Black hand and a white hand clasped together in solidarity, outraged the school’s Black principal, E.O. Jordan. Jordan called some students to the cafeteria and ordered them to remove the pins.
Unita Blackwell had little regard for Jordan, who she described in her book Barefootin' as “more concerned about keeping his job than helping our children.” To her, Jordan was a puppet of white school boards, which regularly hired spineless “yes-men”-style principals who were fine with Black schools having to use decrepit facilities and old, “scribbled on,” outdated textbooks discarded by wealthier white schools. Jordan’s own students apparently shared Blackwell’s opinion, having called him an “Uncle Tom,” according to court filings.
The spirit of protest spread quickly at Henry Weathers Highschool in the face of adversity. The initial 30 students with pins grew to 150 students, and then 200. Jordan claimed teachers and bus drivers were in on the movement, passing buttons out to students in court filings. Eventually Jordan told students they could not attend school “wearing buttons and creating a disturbance” and that “if they returned Wednesday wearing buttons that I would send them home.” By the end of the week, according to Blackwell, Jordan had suspended 300 kids.
Claiming students had been denied their First Amendment right to free speech, NAACP lawyers joined Blackwell in filing Jeremiah Blackwell, Jr., v. Issaquena County Board of Education on April, 1, 1965. They wanted all suspended students to be allowed to return to school and for the schools to allow students the freedom to wear the SNCC pins. They also demanded Issaquena schools finally implement the Supreme Court’s 1950s ruling for desegregation by the beginning of the 1965 school year. In the same action, plaintiffs demanded the court prohibit the school district from operating “compulsory racially segregated schools.”
U.S. District Court Judge Harold Cox noted that students had deliberately pinned buttons on non-participants, and even hurled pins through school windows, which he believed “constituted a complete breakdown in school discipline.”
“There was an unusual degree of commotion, boisterous conduct, a collision with the rights of others, an undermining of authority, and a lack of order, discipline and decorum,” Cox ruled, and then upheld a lower court’s decision to allow leaders to ban the pins. In the same order, however, Cox dealt a blow to school segregation by agreeing with Blackwell that Black students could not be prohibited from attending white schools in the fall of 1965. He ordered schools to submit a desegregation “Freedom of Choice” plan in compliance with federal law.
Being a decision against student disruptions, the Cox ruling ended with some Issaquena County Black students kicked from school. These expelled students joined other students who were already boycotting a system they considered woefully inadequate. Some students refused to attend the Delta's deprived Black schools, but were unwilling to weather the harassment from white kids and their equally crude white parents.
Their reluctance was not unfounded. Blackwell described one abusive parental encounter at nearby Rolling Fork Elementary School while trying to enroll her eight-year-old son in 1965, per the orders of Judge Cox.
“Nigger, nigger, nigger, go back where you belong!” a white parent yelled from the school grounds.
“Ma’am, I am where I belong,” Blackwell claims she responded in her book, Barefootin'.
The woman continued to assail her, shrieking “Take those niggar children back home,” in full view of young Jeremiah.
Her son carries his own memories of harassment. Jeremiah told Unitablackwellhistory.org researchers in 2022 that officials “kicked him out” of his elementary school during the SNCC pin ordeal. He later transferred to the white school in Rolling Fork, and he says this set him up for incessant “spitballs and being called ‘niggar’ in cafeterias and classrooms."
Rolling Fork officials and teachers, he said, were little better.
“Teachers were mostly indifferent,” Blackwell said. “I don’t think they wanted us there any more than the parents.”
Rolling Fork administrators also forced Blackwell and other Mayersville transfer students to retake the 3rd Grade, even though Jeremiah said he was not academically behind, and even graduated from the school with honors.
“We could have all graduated early, but to spite it all we decided we would graduate in the year they put us in, which was ’76. But we all could have graduated in ’75,” Blackwell said. “Matter of fact, they ended up saying we were gifted students after an aptitude test in our sophomore or junior year.”
Immediately after the Cox decision, however, the crowd of unregistered Black students was growing amid harassment and expulsions, Students needed schools, not holding pens.
Deprogramming for a Free Society
King says the concept for Freedom Schools and comparable re-education programs like Head Start arose from the research of Mohandas Gandhi, the anti-colonial Indian nationalist and political ethicist who used nonviolent resistance to free India from British imperialism. After a few years working in South Africa as a lawyer, Gandhi returned to India and discovered a plantation system in the north country that King described as nearly identical to the Mississippi Delta’s own sharecropping system. British planters had so exploited Indian farm workers with subsistence wages that the systemic abuse had fossilized into regional thinking. Fixing something this entrenched would require more than surface-level tinkering and nonviolent protest.
“Gandhi realizes (protest) is not enough for these Indians working for the British planters ... so, he begins to say, ‘we need to develop alternative institutions, parallel institutions, even while we are bowed down, and we need to be working on the future,” King said. “What we did in Mississippi was develop those alternative institutions and parallel institutions. That’s what the Freedom Schools were. They were an alternative institution. (White folk) won’t let you into the white institutions with superior teachers? Well, fine. We’ll create our own alternative variation, and they'll be better than the other.”
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) developed the Freedom School concept during the 1964 Freedom Summer movement in Mississippi. They recruited teachers from all over the country and trained them how to teach young minds math, science, reading. More importantly, they taught them the importance of asking questions.
“We were working with younger generations to help them realize they were victims of oppression and injustice and that they needed to be educated. They needed to understand their history and our system of government,” King said. “They needed to ... learn how to be articulate, to stand up and make a point in a meeting. It was much more complex than just a school. It was teaching a way of being.”
Freedom Schools opened across the South, showing young people important facts and then teaching them to check what they learned with new questions. After decades of rote recital and memorization of stunted lesson plans, young Black Mississippians needed to explore a thorough world of knowledge, and then to challenge it.
“We’d say, ‘Here is the Constitution,’” said King. “We’ve studied it now for three weeks. Now, look at your own situation. Is your situation protected by this Constitution? No, you say? Tell me how not? Give me an example. Another example, please. And another example, please. The teachers were gifted and highly motivated and had been through a training program in Ohio run by the National Council of Churches, where they had learned about the basics of nonviolent struggle and nonviolent direct action.”
Teachers were staunch enthusiasts willing to bring their own typewriters and learning materials. They were determined to show students how to stand on their own feet and act for a better future—and many did. Freedom school students took their newfound awareness and pushed for even further desegregation. A group of 22 students attempted to desegregate high schools in Meridian, Canton and Jackson, and several Freedom Schools published their own school newspapers, such as the Clarksdale Freedom Press, which covered civil rights news around the state, and printed editorials and poetry
While Freedom Schools were busy changing young minds, another organization, the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), was pressing for its own concept class among preschoolers. Blackwell served as a congressional district developer to open CDGM Head Start Centers in the Delta and set up committees to run them. In their first year, Blackwell says CDGM operated 81 Head Start centers in 26 counties, usually set up in churches or Freedom Summer headquarters.
In her book, Barefootin’, Blackwell said these pre-school programs also fleshed out the knowledge of under-educated adult parents in the evenings.
“I knew several adults who went back to school as a result of these programs and today are working in good jobs and making good lives for themselves and their families,” Blackwell wrote. “So, the centers provided a ‘head start’ for parents, too.”
To Mississippi’s authoritarian white class, however, Freedom Schools and Head Start programs were a hotbed for political dissent and a threat to white power. Mississippi’s segregationist Sovereignty Commission monitored Head Start programs closely in Blackwell’s Mayersville community and in other places. Sovereignty Commission investigator Tom Scarrough noted in one 1967 case file that “most of those attending” can read and write, and "at least one Negro woman has finished the 11th Grade," despite the school being intended for "the training of illiterates." The file arose from a complaint from "several farmers who have laborers who are attending the adult education school,"
Mary King was dismissive of claims that Head Start programs and Freedom Schools were training political “agitators.”
“We don’t need the acceptances of nighttime Klansmen who masquerade as government officials during the day. Their accusations are irrelevant,” King told out researchers. “If you are a citizen of the United States you should be able to work on whatever it is you think should be important to work on.”
Freedom School developers never intended for the schools to be permanent. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of national and regional in civil rights organizations, only designed the program to run for a few weeks to serve as a transition period. The ultimate goal, according to their own students, was integration.
“We young people had a plan,” said Roscoe Jones, a Freedom School student in Meridian. “We were going to integrate everything that was open to the public that we had to go through the back door. We were going through the front door in movie houses, everything. We had plans for it all. And it was not adults telling us this. It was student led.”
Freedom Schools closed at the onset of integration, but segregationists worked to undermine the Head Start program as well, claiming CDGM upset Mississippi’s racial hierarchy by creating jobs for communists and agitators. Mississippi Gov. Paul B. Johnson and Sen. John Stennis complained of CDGM’s inexpert accounting practices, but more likely detested CDGM posting bail for jailed demonstrators. Stennis and avowed racist Sen. James Eastland convinced the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) Director Sargent Shriver to cut off CDGM’s grant money. The Child Development Group of Mississippi’s last grant ran out in 1967, and Mississippi Action for Progress took over most Head Start programs and continued to worry white officials by training undereducated Black farm workers and allegedly encouraging Black political candidates to run, according to Sovereignty Commission files.
It would take another five years from Judge Cox’ ruling for Issaquena County schools to integrate, but even today, school integration in Mississippi is incomplete. De facto segregation remains widespread in Mississippi, particularly in the Delta region, where white parents established private “seg-school” academies to exclude Black students, Seg schools initially barred Black students through racist exclusionary enrollment, but now through high tuition costs. Many of these same seg schools are still open today, and they contain the brunt of white school-age children in many Mississippi counties.
The Hechinger Report used National Center for Education Statistics information to identify more than 35 segregation academies with a Black student population of 2% or less. Almost all were founded between the years of 1964 and 1972, when white parents pulled their students from public schools en masse to flee integrating Black students. Some of the academies, including Benton Academy near Yazoo City and Carroll Academy near Greenwood, had no Black students attending as recently as the 2019-2020 school year, according to the most recent data.
Mississippi’s lingering wealth disparity between its Black and white population allow private schools charging an average $5,000 to effectively deter any Black presence in its classrooms.
Despite segregation academies' stubborn economic apartheid, white state legislators were still managing to dedicate state funding to them in 2022 by amending state tax laws to allow individuals and businesses to write off a percentage of their taxes for voluntary cash contributions to the academies. Magnolia Heights School, a notorious segregation school founded in 1970 (with only 10 Black students out of roughly 600 pupils), received $162,000 in tax credits from the state’s Children’s Promise Act in 2020, an additional $395k in 2022 and another $250k in 2021, despite charging its students $7,600 a year in tuition. Wayne Academy, which is more than 98% white, received almost half a million dollars from the state in 2020 and an additional $250k in 2021, despite charging more than $4,000 in annual tuition. The 95%-white Pillow Academy, in the majority Black Delta town of Greenwood, got $270k in tax credits in 2020, as well as $250k in 2021, and $400,000 in 2022, in spite of charging highschoolers almost $7,000 a year—in a county where almost 50% of the Black population is impoverished. Public schools in the destitute Mississippi Delta, meanwhile, remain woefully underfunded thanks to schools’ reliance upon insufficient county sales and property taxes. Blackwell, herself, bemoaned the stubborn disparity. “… [M]any of the schools in the Delta are depressing reminders of the past,” Blackwell said in Barefootin'. “Few white students attend public schools in Issaquena and Sharkey counties, or in other Mississippi Delta counties.” Local, majority-Black high schools, she explained, have no advanced placement courses, and many Delta public schools “face many of the same problems the all-Black schools always faced, including low self-esteem among students, poor standardized test scores, unimaginative teaching, harsh disciplinary measures and school board members “serving the will of whites who send their own children to private academies. “Are we better off now?” Blackwell asked. “I think so, but we still have a long way to go.”