Rights Warrior Honored

July 12, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

More than 800 people overflowed the historic Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church in Baltimore yesterday to celebrate the life, the work and the legacy of the woman some called "the Princess of Civil Rights," Juanita Jackson Mitchell.

Except in gratitude and pride, no tears were shed at this memorial service.

Instead, friends, colleagues and compatriots in her family's long struggle for justice came to remember, to teach and to marvel -- and even to share laughter at the memory of her indomitable spirit.

"She was a foe without hate, a victor without oppression, a victim without murmuring," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, in one of the most eloquent of nearly 30 speeches of tribute delivered during the 3 1/2 -hour service.

"She taught us how to hope . . . how to win and how to lose, how to live and, with dignity, she taught us how to die," he said.

Mrs. Mitchell, 79, who had been slowed and then paralyzed by a series of strokes that began in 1985, was stricken last Tuesday by a heart attack at her Druid Hill Avenue home.

She was rushed to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead 90 minutes later. Her children and grandchildren were by her side.

The daughter of Lillie Carroll Jackson, long a prominent local civil rights leader, Mrs. Mitchell became the matriarch of a family whose calling and tradition was the battle to end the racism, segregation and injustice that long characterized everyday life for blacks in Maryland.

She was the widow and helpmate of the late Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., a Capitol Hill lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She fought discrimination across six decades, and used her own legal education -- she was the first black woman to practice law in Maryland -- to carry the fight from lunchrooms to the Supreme Court.

Mrs. Mitchell's remains were not at the church yesterday. Family members said they have been cremated, like her husband's. Instead, those who went to the 94-year-old Sharp Street Memorial Church yesterday saw Mrs. Mitchell and her husband smiling at each other in a large, black-and-white photograph that stood before the altar. In it she wore her trademark, a wide-brimmed hat.

"The harder the times, the wider the brim, as a signal to all who would mess with the mission," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

The crowd -- politicians, judges, lawyers, clergy, teachers, business people, friends, neighbors and family -- gradually filled the sanctuary's semi-circular pews. When the air conditioning flagged, they fanned themselves with the 14-page memorial program for the service.

Outside, in the withering heat and humidity, more sat in folding chairs set up on the sidewalk along Etting Street, on the stoops or in the windows of rowhouses across the street, listening to the service on loudspeakers.

In the front, center pews sat the Mitchell family, including Mrs. Mitchell's four sons, former state Sens. Clarence and Michael Mitchell, Dr. Keiffer J. Mitchell and George Davis Mitchell, and their children and grandchildren.

The youngest of them moved freely among the laps and arms of their parents and grandparents.

You could not describe any of those attending as mourners.

"We gather to celebrate the life, the times, and the home-going of Juanita Jackson Mitchell," said the Rev. R. Douglas Force, the church's pastor.

Mrs. Mitchell, he said, "was one of the first fruits of those fought the good fight . . . that all might remember that we are all bound together around a common beginning and a common ending."

As the service began, Dr. Force read a message from President Bush and first lady Barbara Bush extending their sympathies.

"Her spirit will live on in our hearts and minds," the president said.

One of the shortest tributes delivered yesterday came from a visibly moved Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who said later he originally asked not to be called on to speak because "I was afraid I would start to cry." He said Mrs. Mitchell's mother, Lillie, was the first civil rights leader he ever encountered and became "an inspiration" to him when he faced civil rights legislation as a City Council member. "Juanita took her place, and we became very fast friends," he said. He continued to visit her in the hospital and at home during her final years.

Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein said, "We cannot let our sense of loss obscure the achievements of her life. . . . We must never forget what she fought for -- freedom, equality and justice for all."

Former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, now a Baltimore lawyer, noted that Mrs. Mitchell often said, " 'I am a freedom fighter.' Her battlefields were the protests, the lawsuits, the polling places, and anywhere else she saw injustice."

But she did not fight with violence, he said.

"Her weapons were her brilliance, courage and faith. She was fearless before any court, any established politician, or any hatemonger. Her pride was like polished armor shining in the sun.

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