Unita Blackwell first became involved in politics in June 1964, after some organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came into town looking for black volunteers to register to vote. “I was thirty-one years old, stuck in poverty, and trapped by the color of my skin on a rough road to nowhere, doing what Mississippi black people had been doing for generations – working in the cotton fields.” About a week later, Blackwell found herself standing by the side door of the Issaquena County Courthouse with her husband and six other African Americans, waiting to register. After some back-and-forth, the clerk allowed two of them into the courthouse, leaving Blackwell and the others still outside. A bevy of pickup trucks with long hunting guns hanging in the back windows appeared, and the group soon found themselves surrounded by a bunch of armed white men, “their faces … bright red.” That was the moment, she would later write in her memoir, when she decided the right to vote was risking her life for. Blackwell would go on to spend her career working on civil rights, and on political and social issues in her home state of Mississippi, initially as an organizer for SNCC, and eventually as mayor of her town. Yet she also later noted her disillusionment with voter registration drives like the one that had sparked her political interest. While perhaps well-intentioned, voter registration efforts seemed to have made little impact on the daily experiences of living in rural Mississippi: “Now people is stillhungry, people stilldidn't have no housing, no clothes, no jobs.”
Blackwell found an opportunity to address these persistent challenges in 1967, the year that Dorothy Height, then the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), approached her about joining the organization's effort to address the housing needs of Mississippi communities. From 1967 to 1975, Blackwell worked alongside Height and Dorothy Duke (NCNW's housing specialist) to tackle the housing problem. Duke and Blackwell made “a great team,” Blackwell wrote in her memoir:
[Duke] understood the white power structure, and I understood people. So when we came up with projects, we could hash them out and figure out what would work or not work and how to handle them. We were both on new ground because we were creating a program from scratch and we were women.