Juanita Jackson Mitchell, who died yesterday at the age of 79, was destined from birth to play a pivotal role in the upward struggle of African Americans -- and play it she did with vigor, courage, resolution and flair.
The daughter of Lillie M. Jackson -- the force behind the rise of the Maryland branch of the NAACP to national prominence in the 1930s -- she was imbued from childhood on with a sense of destiny that placed her in the forefront of pioneering voter registration drives and gutsy protests against segregated institutions and public facilities. The wife of Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., director of the NAACP's Washington office and the "101st senator" during passage of the great civil rights laws of the 1960s, she was the Baltimore anchor of a family known as the "black Kennedys" in journalistic shorthand to convey its importance.
Mrs. Mitchell grew up in a highly segregated city but was told repeatedly by her indomitable mother that she was the equal of anyone. Juanita's spirited acceptance of this dictum evolved from a high school prank posing as a French-speaking turbaned "foreigner" to get served in a downtown department store to a long series of lawsuits in which, as the first black woman to practice law in Maryland, she joined such luminaries as Thurgood Marshall in anticipating the great desegregation decisions of the Supreme Court. Maryland restaurants, schools, swimming pools, beaches and amusement parks were open to persons of all races, partly as a result of cases she brought; police searches of homes merely on the basis of anonymous tips were banned.