Thursday, June 16, 2011

NAACP Honors Clarence Mitchell, Jr.

Living in the 21st century, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. Some are well known. Others seem to disappear from the pages of history. One of those giants whose name has faded from recent memory is Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. (1911-1984).

Nicknamed the 101st senator by colleagues on Capitol Hill, Mitchell led the fight for justice and equality as a lobbyist for the NAACP. As chief of the Washington Bureau from 1950 to 1978, his work in building relationships on both sides of the aisle led to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964, as well as the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded Mitchell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country.

According to current Washington Bureau Chief and lobbyist, Hilary O. Shelton, anyone who works in the interest of justice and equality owes a debt of gratitude to Mitchell. He is not a household name among civil rights pioneers, Shelton notes, because he often worked diligently behind the scenes.

"Even though he has been gone from the position for over 30 years, people know him on Capitol Hill," Shelton said.

Mitchell's responsibility was to advocate for the NAACP's civil rights legislative agenda to Congress, the White House and government agencies, Shelton said. Mitchell walked a tightrope for decades, striking a delicate balance of persistence and humility in order to make inroads across party lines and in the face of hostility. He registered to vote as an independent so as not to appear biased toward either party. At the time he took the job, most Blacks in the U.S. identified with the Republican Party and notorious segregationists Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms were Dixiecrats.

According to his son, Michael, Mitchell started out with aspirations of becoming a physician. Upon graduating from Lincoln University in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, Mitchell took a job with the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper to make ends meet. After covering a lynching on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Mitchell was compelled to answer the call to justice.

Mitchell's relative obscurity is the reason two native Baltimoreans took it upon themselves to make sure that the man, his work and his legacy were acknowledged on what would have been his 100th birthday. Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, immediate past president of the Baltimore City NAACP chapter, and Michael Johnson, director of the Paul Robeson Institute, collaborated to not only recognize, but also to educate people about the work of native son Mitchell.

"When you look at civil rights and voting rights and housing - if it wasn't for him, none of those bills would've passed," said Cheatham. According to Cheatham, Morgan State University was able to survive because of Mitchell's support. He also helped secure an engineering school on the college campus, which now bears his name. The main courthouse in Baltimore as well as an admissions building at the University of Maryland are also named for Mitchell.

Civil rights was a family affair. Mitchell's wife, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, established the youth component of the NAACP and was the first Black woman to practice law in Maryland. Mitchell's mother-in-law, Lillie M. Carroll Jackson, established the Baltimore City NAACP chapter and presided over the largest NAACP chapter from 1935 to 1970.

The weeklong centennial celebration honoring Mitchell's life included an educational program for students in Baltimore City public schools, a panel discussion, church services and a discussion with Prof. Denton L. Watson, author of Lion in the Lobby: Clarence Mitchell Jr. 's Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws. The celebration culminated with a birthday breakfast on March 8 featuring Shelton as the keynote speaker and a tour of the Clarence Mitchell Jr. courthouse in Baltimore.

NAACP Maryland State Conference President Gerald Stansbury acknowledged Mitchell's lasting legacy. "I think it's amazing that his whole family had a legacy of activism," said Stansbury. "He was a freedom fighter. I think the NAACP was very fortunate to have [Mitchell] be a part of it."

by Cindy Barnes-Thomas
reprinted from Spring 2011, The Crisis, p41

No comments: