Thursday, September 16, 2010

Barefootin': Inspiring story of a sharecropper turned politician

Barefootin': Life Lessons from the Road to FreedomBarefootin': Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom by Unita Blackwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm giving this book five stars in honor of Unita Blackwell. Her story brought me to tears several times, and I would love to meet her and shake her hand.

She was born to poor cotton workers in Mayersville, Mississippi, and finished the 8th grade before going to work full time in the cotton fields. She picked and chopped cotton until she was in her mid-30s, when she was inspired to join the civil rights movement. She was raised by loving parents, with a good dose of "mother wit," such as:

"If you lie down with a dog, you'll get up with fleas."

"Don't lay it on the cow when the milk goes sour."

"A new broom sweeps clean, but the old one knows where the dirt is."

"Every shut eye ain't asleep, and every grinning mouth ain't happy."

"Wear life like a loose garment."

About six months after she had her son Jerry, Blackwell nearly died. In fact, she was pronounced dead but she came back to life. From that point on, she believed that she was not done on earth yet...and that she had work to do. She didn't go out looking for her life's purpose--but when it found her, she knew it was what she was meant to do.

She joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and began fighting for the right of African-Americans to vote. It took Blackwell several efforts herself to register to vote. To say she was persistent and courageous is an understatement. She was arrested multiple times, beaten to a pulp (once in front of her son), assaulted and abused, and humiliated repeatedly. Blackwell makes the point that when she hears all about the torture Americans have inflicted on Iraqi prisoners, it feels strange to her because most people today--especially young people, and whites in general--"do not have any idea the price that ordinary black Missippians have paid...they don't know what kind of hell we went through...I can hardly bear, even now, 40 years later, to think about it."

In 1964, she was part of a group (with the famous and incredibly gutsy Fannie Lou Hamer) who went to the Democratic Convention. They represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and they fought to be seated as delegates at the convention. The "real" Mississippi Democratic delegates were planning to support Barry Goldwater instead of Lyndon Johnson. That was the year when southerners began to leave the Democratic party over race. Reading this book made me feel grossly uneducated, because I was never aware of this very important event in history. Fannie Lou Hamer made an impassioned speech to a congressional committee, appealing for their delegates to be seated. (That speech is what made her famous.) Learn about Hamer and this historical convention here:

Blackwell was also heavily involved in integrating Mississippi schools. She describes her efforts to register her 8-year-old son for school (the schools for blacks did not operate on a full school year because of the cotton season), and a white woman ran over and started screaming the N-word at her repeatedly...right in front of her son. Although many improvements have been made since that time, the Mississippi delta schools have experienced white flight because of desegregation. In Blackwell's school district, 97 percent of the students are black, and 95% are eligible for the school lunch program. The high school has no advanced placement courses. They still have a long way to go.

Blackwell eventually became the mayor of Mayersville and served in that role for several years. She completed a master's degree in planning and received several doctorates. She advised and had close relationships with presidents, namely Carter and Clinton, and also met Ronald Reagan. She traveled to China in the 1970s with a group led by actress Shirley Maclaine (whom she met during the civil rights movement) and became heavily involved in China-U.S. friendship efforts. She also led efforts to get what is now known as "Head Start" programs begun in Mississippi, and she led efforts to build housing for the poor and elderly.

In spite of all the hatred and prejudice Blackwell experienced, she clung to her faith and her belief in the inherent goodness of people. She turned her anger into compassion and worked to right the wrongs she saw. She wrote that "Even at my most angry I never hated white people. I hated the way I'd been treated and the way I was always having to look out for snakes and be uncertain and afraid. But I had grown to see that people can change. My faith became more steadfast as I saw people willing to open their minds and respect each other and work together. When that happens, there's almost no limit to the good that can be accomplished for the betterment of society."

About being part of a delegation that welcomed President Jimmy Carter to Mississippi: "A cotton-chopping, cotton-picking black child from Lula, Mississippi, raised up with absolutely nothing, who hadn't been allowed to vote, couldn't even look white people in the eye, had represented the state of Mississippi in welcoming the president of the United States to MY state."

Blackwell exhorts Americans to get involved, to become community organizers (my word, not hers). "A small group of abolitionists writing and speaking eventually led to the end of slavery. A few stirred-up women brought about women's voting...It's not the president or Congress that makes change happen. It's the people. Us. We are the movers. The president and Congress follow us."

The title of the book, "Barefootin'", refers to a song they used to hear in the juke houses and on the radio--it's about dancing one's way through life. Blackwell does that and more. She helped the people around her to dance too.

This is how she ends her book: "When you're barefootin' on the road to freedom, you have to watch and fight and pray. Watch the road so when you run up on a roadblock, you can cut a new path and go around. Watch the other fellow on the road and yourself as well. Fight for the right of way. Fight for the right to stay on the road. Fight to keep yourself open to understanding. Pray for the strength to finish what you started. And don't let nobody turn you around. You can do it. Your spirit is in your feet, and your feet can run free."

Blackwell's life and work are truly inspiring. I have googled Unita Blackwell, and sadly, she appears to be in the early stages of dementia. But I found this great video of her speaking last year, speaking about the civil rights movement: Blackwell was a friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But I can only imagine how amazed and delighted she must have been when Obama won the election last November. How far we have yet to go, but how far we have come.

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