Tale of Mitchell's mighty struggle ought not to die

Michael Olesker

July 09, 1992|By Michael Olesker

She was a changed woman those last few years she still appeared in public: the voice grown edgy with the weight of too many struggles, her age making the old, rhythmic phrases start to slip from her control, and this nagging piece of her mind wondering if people would remember.

Juanita Jackson Mitchell lived long enough to be lionized as the matriarch of the so-called black Kennedys, but too long to imagine it would endure: not just the vision of family royalty, but the notion that people would understand what it had cost her husband and her sons and herself.

Near the end, she was only a footnote in the minds of the younger generation, a name out of a church sermon or a civics lesson, something to be memorized for the teacher, but mostly a throwback to some distant, unimaginable time.

The world moves too quickly now, and the kids take too much for granted. They might not understand the humiliations she'd helped overcome for them, the fights to integrate schools and libraries and water fountains, the indecencies of walking into a department store and not being able to try on the very garment you might want to buy.

They knew these things mostly from hearsay now. And the smaller battles, they would never know: like that Saturday morning on Druid Hill Avenue, where the American Nazi Party members picketed the family house. Some of them carried chains, some of them ugly signs.

Others might have fled in panic; not the Mitchells. Veterans of a thousand rallies, there was always paint or shoe polish around the house, always blank boards. So they printed their own signs and counterpicketed the pickets.

Or that time with the bus driver, that lunatic Ku Klux Klansman who was giving black kids the rough time. Mrs. Mitchell $l demanded the bus company fire him. The company called for a meeting. The Klan threatened Mrs. Mitchell's life.

In Washington that day, her husband, Clarence, was meeting with a member of Congress when he got word of the threat. He hopped into his car, drove to Baltimore, walked into this meeting packed with Klan types and challenged the whole bunch of them to a fight.

Anyway, it was different back then. Mrs. Mitchell had fought all those fights, been toughened by them and beaten up by them, and when the end came she wasn't sure who would remember. She died Tuesday afternoon, at 79, following a heart attack.

Those last years brought lamentable changes: the first stroke, -- the fall down a flight of steps, the stroke that followed, the legal problems of her sons, the financial woes and the rewrites of history.

The history mattered a lot. She had a passion for chronicling things, for letters and photographs and the names of people who mustn't be forgotten. When she wondered about her own place, she told her family that many are not recognized until their time on Earth is gone.

While she waited, she kept working. She'd gone into Montebello State Hospital, paralyzed from the fall down the steps. But, when she'd gotten some of her strength back, she started talking to young paralytics there, telling them not to give up, telling them to stick up for their rights, telling them to organize.

She'd ride her motorized wheelchair through the halls, dropping into rooms. She talked of one day getting out of the wheelchair and walking again. And she wanted textbooks in her room, wanted to become proficient in disability law.

Maybe the young people knew some of the early legal history: how she was the first black woman to practice law in Maryland and used the courts to fight the ancient segregationist practices.

And how she'd fought the lynch laws, and the case of George Armwood.

It was Princess Anne, 1933. She was still Juanita Jackson then, 20 years old. The man who would become her husband, Clarence Mitchell Jr., was there, covering the lynching for the Afro-American.

He came home to tell her so much: not just the lynching, but how they'd burned poor Armwood's body and then taken pieces of him and sold them as souvenirs.

''It's a monstrous thing that creates this kind of hate,'' Mitchell told her.

And something was lit in the two young people: Clarence Mitchell would go on to be the quiet man of the great civil rights movement, one who helped those on Capitol Hill find a conscience. His wife became one of the most pugnacious fighters in Maryland's struggle over equal rights.

It was different at the end. The laws were rewritten, but the way the nation lives its life sometimes seems not to change at all. Only months ago, in the ashes of the Los Angeles riots, a man named Rodney King issued a simple, plaintive plea: ''Can't we all get along?''

It was, at bottom, the precise question asked over the years by Juanita Jackson Mitchell. Time steals from memory, and the facts get moved around. But a long time ago, when the fight was more vicious and the stakes much higher, she was a brave and formidable figure. And that much should be remembered.

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