Unita's World

Unita Blackwell is one of those rare people whose very presence can transform lives.

I had the good fortune a few years back of getting together with Unita to help her write the story of her remarkable and unlikely life, "Barefootin': Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom," (Crown, $23) published last summer.

Out of that experience came not only an enduring friendship with one of the most courageous and accomplished women in America, but I had the opportunity to share in Unita's rich and varied world—the places and events and especially the people. Unita's World is Mayersville, Miss., one of the state's tiniest, most rural communities. Who knows how many times I've made the trip up Highway 1 some 45 miles north of Vicksburg?

In case you don't know about Unita Blackwell, I'll give you this brief overview: In 1961, Unita was chopping cotton in the Delta. In 1991 she was lecturing students and professors at Harvard University. You would not believe the things she did in between. She challenged the entrenched white power structure of this state, which got her thrown into a cattle barn at the state fairgrounds and terrorized by agents of the state of Mississippi for 11 days. She helped normalize relations between China and the U.S. Blackwell incorporated her town and became the first black female mayor in this state. She's been an adviser to three or four U.S. presidents. (I bet she's been to the White House more than Haley Barbour!)

Last November, I participated with Unita in an international conference in the Dominican Republic. Swaying palm trees, great food, pristine beaches, and scores of fascinating, highly acclaimed speakers and conferees from across the world to talk to—I've learned never to be surprised at where I find Unita's World.

This weekend—Friday through Sunday, March 16-18—Unita's World will be Greenville, Miss. A distinguished and interesting array of black leaders, performers, motivational speakers and educators from across the country will honor Unita for her work to secure equal rights and equal justice for all, and they'll educate and inspire the rest of us to follow her example. I'll be there, and you can, too.

Here's a small sampling of the talent being assembled—I've heard a couple of these speakers, and believe me, they're first rate:

• Dr. Bernard Harris, the first black astronaut. (Friday)
• Na'im Akbar, motivational speaker, author and psychology professor at Florida State. (Saturday)
• Kemba Smith, Harvard law student and motivational speaker, whose background you won't believe. (Saturday)
• Jonathan Slocumb, actor and comedian. (Sunday)
• Cynthia Palmer, gospel singer. (all three days)
• Many other outstanding black leaders from Mississippi and the nation.
• Unita Blackwell herself, of course.

The first two days' programs will take place (9 a.m.-5 p.m.) at Our House, 1213 VFW Drive, Greenville, a center devoted to helping people live violence-free lives. Sunday, the conference moves to the Greenville Conference Center on South Raceway Road. The events are all open to the public and free.

Sponsors are the Kellogg Foundation, Our House Inc. and Stony Brook University (N.Y.) Department of Social Work, headed by Dr. Frances Brisbane. Dr. Brisbane says he wanted to "to show respect and admiration for Unita Blackwell, who helped to bring freedom to Mississippi and the rest of the United States. Without her efforts and those of her co-warriors throughout Mississippi and the nation, who went to jail and graves, we would not know the America we experience today."

I hope to see you in Greenville this weekend. By the way, Sunday, March 18, is Unita's birthday!


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