Baltimore's Mitchells: the next generation

April 27, 1994|By Victoria White | Victoria White,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON — As a little boy in Baltimore, Keiffer Mitchell Jr. had a dream. I want to be president, he told his grandfather.

You will be president, his grandfather replied.

No matter that no African-American had ever been president. No matter that racism was evident across the country. His grandfather, Clarence Mitchell Jr., a highly regarded NAACP lobbyist who was widely known as "the 101st senator," was used to defying barriers in his way. So were Keiffer's grandmother, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first black woman to practice law in Maryland; his great-uncle, Parren Mitchell, Maryland's first black congressman; and his great-grandmother, Lillie Carroll Jackson, a local NAACP leader.

For decades, Keiffer Mitchell Jr.'s family has been Maryland's first family of civil rights. Now, the torch burns in the hands of a new generation.

Mr. Mitchell may not be president -- not yet, anyway -- but he has spent the past few months at the White House, as an intern. Though he has been around politics all his life and has compiled a resume of work on local, state and national campaigns, including President Clinton's, he remains starry-eyed about serving near the pinnacle of power.

"I still say to myself, 'I can't actually believe I'm in the White House,' " Mr. Mitchell, a 26-year-old law student here, says.

The work itself -- 15 hours of unpaid labor each week in the Senate liaison office -- is seldom exciting. But it is experience.

Mr. Mitchell does research, tracking down bits of information requested by Senate offices. He arranges meetings to discuss legislation the White House is interested in. He answers the phone and escorts important White House visitors.

For Mr. Mitchell, the ambience is to die for. In a daily journal, he tracks his brushes with greatness and his impressions of what, he wrote, is "the center of power in the world."

Of his first walk past the Oval Office, he wrote, "I saw everything -- yellow curtains, big desk, two couches facing each other, high ceilings, yellow walls with white trim and a large rug with the presidential seal in the middle. Again, I thought of my grandfather."

It is his habit to walk from one end of the White House to the other as he leaves each day, in the hope of running into someone notable. "I passed by Hillary Clinton in the hallway," he says. "I mumbled, 'Good morning,' and she said, 'Good morning.' "

Once, encountering the president, Mr. Mitchell managed a "Have a good weekend."

His grandfather, who died 10 years ago, knew the White House well as a lobbyist and a guest. "I sit in the office my grandfather would [phone] up," Mr. Mitchell said. His grandfather worked closely with President Lyndon B. Johnson to plan strategy for persuading Congress to pass civil rights legislation.

President Jimmy Carter awarded Mr. Mitchell's grandfather a Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award, and said of him in 1980: "Every single piece of civil rights legislation passed in the last 25 years was passed because of Clarence Mitchell. Without him, it could not have been done."

For good luck, Mr. Mitchell carries a photo of the award in his wallet. It bears an inscription from his grandfather: "Someday you'll be awarding these when you're in the White House." For now, he satisfies himself with handing a visitor a miniature roll of LifeSavers bearing the presidential seal.

Dr. Keiffer Mitchell, son of the NAACP lobbyist and father of the intern, was emotionally moved during a White House tour given by his son. As they passed the rooms where Dr. Mitchell's father once worked for civil rights, "the walls seemed to echo the inspirational presence of my father and President Johnson," he says.

Like the generations of his family before him, Mr. Mitchell has worked against discrimination and for the disadvantaged. As a student at Emory University in Atlanta, he helped organize a demonstration against racism in Forsyth County, Ga. As a law student, he has provided free legal help to people with AIDS.

"When he was exposed to the pressing problems of real people, I saw an emerging sense that he wanted to eliminate injustice and unfairness," says William McLain, one of Mr. Mitchell's professors at District of Columbia School of Law.

Mr. Mitchell also interned for both the NAACP and the public defender's office in Baltimore.

"The family commitment to public interest is something he has very much embedded in him," says James Gray, dean of students at the law school, who knew Mr. Mitchell's grandmother, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, when both worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and who now knows the grandson.

Early on, his commitment was recognized by his high school classmates, who voted him the student who best exemplified a tradition of public service.

"My grandmother used to tell me that public service is the rent we pay to live on this earth," Mr. Mitchell says.

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