Juanita Jackson Mitchell had the fire, the guts

Wiley A. Hall 3rd.

July 09, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

It was almost five years ago to the day that I called Juanita Jackson Mitchell and asked her for an interview.

I recalled that meeting yesterday after hearing that she had died Monday afternoon of a heart attack at age 79.

"Please," Mrs. Mitchell told me politely but firmly when I called her. "I want you to go to the civil rights museum first. It will give you a flavor of the times."

I had sought the interview in the hopes of getting a perspective on Mrs. Mitchell, her family and, by extension, the civil rights movement in Maryland.

In many ways, the history of Mrs. Mitchell's family is synonymous with the civil rights movement.

In 1935, Mrs. Mitchell's mother, Lillie Carroll Jackson, took command of a moribund Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and turned it into one of the largest, most active chapters in the country. At its height in 1946, the Baltimore chapter had more than 17,000 members.

Mrs. Mitchell became the first black woman to practice law in Maryland. She founded the Citywide Young People's Forum and the national NAACP Youth Movement and was president of the state conference of NAACP branches.

Meanwhile, her husband, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., served as director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP and the organization's chief congressional lobbyist in the 1950s and 1960s.

Journalists described the Mitchell-Jackson clan as the "black Kennedys" -- this was back in the days when being compared to the Kennedys was not an insult.

So, I followed orders and went first to the museum.

The Lillie Carroll Jackson Museum, named for Mrs. Mitchell's mother, is in a stately, three-story town home in the 1300 block of Eutaw Place.

It is a quiet place with elegant red carpeting, dark wood, marble fixtures and hundreds of pictures chronicling the almost intimate involvement Mrs. Mitchell and her family had with virtually every step of the civil rights movement.

The three-block trip from the museum to Mrs. Mitchell's home on Druid Hill Avenue was a study in contrasts: from a quiet, tree-shrouded street to a barren thoroughfare of abandoned buildings, coin laundries and corner stores. The matriarch of the so-called black Kennedys lived right in the middle of the poverty of her people.

Explained Mrs. Mitchell: "When my parents sent us [Juanita and her two sisters] away to college, they said, 'Now, we've given you what we couldn't get. You're not to come back and separate yourself into an intelligentsia.' "

"You see," she continued, "my mother trained us to be committed to the struggle, and we have trained our children the way she trained us. She was a wise woman -- a wise woman. She knew how great the struggle was and how few the soldiers in freedom's army."

Mrs. Mitchell was 73 years old at the time and she spoke in a thin, quivering voice that nevertheless retained the cadences of an accomplished orator.

At one point during our interview, she threw back her head and recited from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, savoring the lines as if each word were unbearably sweet: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

She spoke with equal relish of the hard but triumphant years following World War II when the NAACP won suit after suit as it challenged and beat back segregation in Baltimore.

"Oh," she exclaimed, "those were thrilling times, thrilling times. It was thrilling to see what a people can do to liberate themselves, and thrilling to see how it can catch on, and thrilling to see how the decent element will respond and help."

"Oh," she continued, "I hate to hear young people today saying how bad things are now. I ask them right out, 'Well, what have you done about it?'

"Young people today," Mrs. Jackson continued, "these young sophisticates, they don't have any guts. They don't want to file suit, stir things up. They are afraid. That's why it is so important that the history of the struggle is not forgotten. Young people must learn that they can give of themselves. You don't need a lot of money."

"I wish my mother were here," said Mrs. Mitchell sadly, as our interview five years ago drew to a close. "I truly believe we would be a lot further along now if she had lived. She was an extraordinary woman.

"I just wish I were young today," she said. "I have the fire, but not the stamina."

That's what I believe we will miss most.

Juanita Jackson Mitchell's fire.

Juanita Jackson Mitchell's guts.

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