Juanita Jackson Mitchell dies at 79 Civil rights leader battled bias in court

July 08, 1992|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer Staff writers Sandy Banisky and Michael Ollove contributed to this article.

The Juanita Jackson Mitchell obituary in The Sun yesterday stated incorrectly that Mrs. Mitchell was born in Baltimore. In fact, she was born in Hot Springs, Ark., while her parents, who lived in Baltimore, were traveling on business. Also, while she was the first black woman to practice law in Maryland, she was not the first to graduate from the University of Maryland Law School. She is survived by 14 grandchildren and two great-grandsons.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the proud first lady of Maryland's leading civil rights family who fought racial discrimination on the picket line and in court, died yesterday. She was 79.

Mrs. Mitchell, whose late husband Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. was a nationally known Capitol Hill lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, suffered a heart attack around noon in her home at 1324 Druid Hill Ave.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

About 90 minutes later, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, she was pronounced dead at University Hospital.

The mother of former state Sens. Michael B. Mitchell and Clarence M. Mitchell III, Mrs. Mitchell was rendered a quadriplegic in November 1989 after falling down a flight of stairs. While undergoing therapy for that injury, she suffered a stroke, her second since 1985.

Mrs. Mitchell was one of Maryland's heroines and the matriarch of a family whose name has become synonymous with civil rights causes over the past half-century. The daughter of legendary local NAACP leader Lillie Carroll Jackson, Mrs. Mitchell spent most of her life battling the racism and segregation that she once said made life a "living hell" for blacks in Maryland.

"I am an old freedom fighter," she said. "I came up in that tradition."

When Mrs. Mitchell was a youngster, Baltimore was segregated virtually block by block. Racially exclusive restrictive covenants were enforced by the state's courts.

Blacks were relegated to second-class status on buses and railroad cars, in parks, restaurants, schools, libraries, museums and at water fountains. Blacks could purchase merchandise in some downtown Baltimore department stores but dared not try on garments. And they couldn't get service at a downtown lunch counter.

Even when Mrs. Mitchell became a lawyer in 1950, the City Bar Association admitted no blacks.

That discrimination made an early impression on Mrs. Mitchell and played a major role in shaping her life.

She once recalled that as a child of 6 she sat on the stoop of her West Baltimore home and watched "the white girls in their middy blouses and skirts going to Western Female High School," which then was in the 1300 block of McCulloh St.

Mrs. Mitchell couldn't understand why blacks weren't allowed in the school or why the school building was opened to blacks (it later became all-black Booker T. Washington Junior High) only after being deemed unfit for whites.

But Mrs. Mitchell, who was the first black woman to practice law in Maryland, used the courts and peaceful protest to become a major force in toppling those barriers.

"The state has lost a great lady in Juanita Mitchell," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday.

"She broke barriers. She didn't see barriers as obstacles. She saw them as vistas that she could stand on top of and see new opportunities," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

Observing that Mrs. Mitchell had been the first black woman to graduate from the University of Maryland Law School, Ms. Mikulski said Mrs. Mitchell was a leader and a role model. "She showed that women had competence, character and courage," the senator said.

As legal counsel to the local NAACP, which her mother led for 35 years, and as head of the Maryland NAACP, Mrs. Mitchell fought successfully to have the city hire black social workers, librarians and police officers. She battled discrimination almost everywhere she found it. In the 1940s and 1950s, she worked on a series of administrative complaints and lawsuits that helped open public facilities and schools to blacks and to force the hiring of blacks in schools and colleges.

In 1953, Mrs. Mitchell and Thurgood Marshall -- who was later named the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court -- were among the four lawyers who filed suit asking that two black teen-agers be allowed to enroll in the Mergenthaler School of Printing. The next year, the Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for blacks were unconstitutional.

In May 1954, Mrs. Mitchell and Mr. Marshall filed suit against the state and the city asking that Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis and Baltimore's Fort Smallwood Park be integrated. They won their case in the Supreme Court in 1955.

She fought a system that required prospective jurors to be kept on two lists, one for blacks and another for whites. She was

counsel for a group of demonstrators who sat in on Eastern Shore restaurants in the early 1960s. She aided Freedom Riders who sought to desegregate restaurants along Route 40, then a major thoroughfare through Maryland.

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