The Mitchell Papers: New Revelations'

April 15, 1995|By MARILYN McCRAVEN

From the 1930s until their deaths, Juanita and Clarence Mitchell Jr. rarely threw away a letter, a photograph, a memo, a speech, a legal brief, a flier announcing a rally or just about any scrap of paper of seeming consequence. The couple sensed that their civil-rights work was of historic importance and that later generations would want documents to study the struggle.

How right they were. The Mitchells' heirs currently are in the process of turning over the papers -- an estimated 250,000 items -- to the Library of Congress. In 18 months or so plans are for it to be the first such collection offered by the Library of Congress on the global Internet; a CD-ROM is planned too.

''The Mitchell Papers'' is one of the most important civil-rights collections in the country, said James H. Hutson, chief of the manuscript division of the Library of Congress. Among civil-rights movement documents, it rivals Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers at Boston University for importance because of its apparently unique wealth of information on behind-the-scenes struggles to get federal legislation passed.

The collection contains such items as letters from a young Baltimore lawyer named Thurgood Marshall as he was just beginning to pursue civil-rights cases in the courts. And there's a picture of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald participating in a New York march in the 1930s to protest the lynching of black men.

But probably of most interest are the letters from presidents and congressmen, many seeking ways to remedy the lack of social and economic justice for black people.

The late Clarence Mitchell Jr. was dubbed ''the 101st senator'' for his exemplary work as NAACP Washington lobbyist. His wife, Juanita, the first black woman to practice law in Maryland, was an NAACP activist in her own right. Also included in the collection are the papers of Juanita Mitchell's mother, Lillie Carroll Jackson, local NAACP president in the 1930s and 1940s, and Parren Mitchell, who was elected Maryland's first black congressman in 1970 and retired in 1986.

Former state senator Michael B. Mitchell, the Mitchells' son, who is handling the donation of the papers, says the papers show that the modern civil-rights movement didn't begin with the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. Baltimore was the hub of the civil-rights movement, starting after Reconstruction, he says.

One researcher who has used the collection is Juan Williams, a Washington Post reporter on leave to write a biography of Thurgood Marshall. He said the collection will give the Mitchell family and Baltimore a more prominent place in civil-rights history.

Mr. Williams was able to make only limited use of the papers in his research because they have not yet been properly cataloged and filed.

In reading the papers, Mr. Williams, who wrote ''Eyes on the Prize,'' a critically acclaimed public TV documentary of the civil-rights struggle, said he was surprised to learn that Clarence Mitchell Jr. played a much more influential role in the passage of key civil-rights legislation than has been reported.

He said personal correspondence shows that Clarence Mitchell Jr. had a friendly relationship with and was respected by some of the most ''ardent racists'' in Congress. In essence, what Mr. Williams learned from the documents he read was that some senators who went home to the South vowing to maintain segregation, upon return to Washington dictated letters to Clarence Mitchell Jr. asking how they could halt the racial injustice that roiled the nation.

It was Clarence Mitchell's skillful lobbying that led to the passage of landmark legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What's so striking is that this all happened at a time when the races were even more polarized than they are today.

That sparks the thought: Who in Washington today speaks in a moderate voice that appeals to the newly elected Republicans who are calling for a roll-back of such civil-rights-era cornerstones as affirmative action that have benefited African-Americans?

Is there anyone working both sides of the aisle in Congress today who can appeal to the humanity of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, just as Clarence Mitchell Jr. did to the conservatives of his day?

Will a new ''101st senator'' emerge to fight the civil-rights battles of the '90s? For that person, Clarence and Juanita Mitchell have left behind some valuable road maps.

Marilyn McCraven edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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