Is Mitchell emulating grandfather?

January 14, 2002|By Joseph R. L. Sterne

IT'S A LONG, long downhill from the titanic struggle for passage of the great civil rights laws of the 1960s to the current cat fight over the redistricting of a state Senate seat in Baltimore.

But key participants in both battles were and are named Clarence Mitchell, and therein lies a tale.

The first was the late Clarence Mitchell Jr., chief lobbyist of the NAACP and the so-called "101st Senator" because of his deep involvement in legislation that guaranteed the ballot and opened places of public accommodation to African-Americans 40 years ago. Baltimore's courthouse is named after him.

The second is his grandson, Clarence Mitchell IV, who is threatening to leave the Democratic Party in a desperate effort to save his seat in Annapolis from the payback redistricting plans of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Maryland's also-ran Republican Party would eagerly welcome him.

Big stakes in the 20th century. Small stakes in the 21st. Democratic leaders who rule by divine right in this one-party state are aghast at "C-4's" audacity. Senate President Mike Miller, who needs to brush up on his history, has lectured the state senator that the Mitchell family over the years has been "too progressive for the Republican Party."

"I told him to put his head down, buckle his armor and do what he thinks his grandfather would want him to do," Mr. Miller declaimed.

Well, just what would Grandfather Mitchell want his namesake grandson to do? Denton L. Watson, author of an 846-page biography of Clarence Jr., insists that "C-4" is acting in the tradition of his granddad.

"He is being very practical," says Mr. Watson, a former editorial writer for The Sun. "If Clarence [the elder] felt shortchanged by one political party, he would move to another. He was not wedded to either party."

The future NAACP leader showed his independence early in his career. In 1932, just out of college and back in Baltimore, he declared himself a Democrat at a time when the overwhelming majority of black Americans were still wedded to the "Party of Lincoln."

"This was the equivalent of a traitorous act," he told an interviewer many years later. "There was a general feeling that anybody who wasn't a Republican was somehow or other a kind of questionable character."

The older Mitchell's actions foreshadowed the GOP's enduring loss during the New Deal of traditional black support. In a chat with historian Nancy J. Weiss, Mr. Mitchell said he had been disappointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaction on many racial issues.

"But when you start from a position of zero, even if you move up a point or two on a scale of 12, it looks like a big improvement," he said.

Clarence Jr. remained a Democrat when he went to work for the Federal Employment Practices Commission in 1941 and later when he joined the NAACP staff in 1946. It was not until 1950, after being named to the crucial post of director of the NAACP's Washington office, that he identified himself as an independent - and remained so to the end of his life.

He considered this stance essential if he hoped to win GOP support in the long battle against racial discrimination. According to biographer Watson, his ability to befriend Republicans was not only "the secret of his success" in Senate battles but also the basis for the widely held belief that Mitchell was a closet Republican.

During the Eisenhower administration, Mitchell found he could cooperate with Sen. William Knowland, the conservative Californian who was Senate GOP leader, in pushing the modest 1957 civil rights bill to passage. He also developed productive friendships with then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Attorney General Herbert Brownell.

In the 1960s, as the drive for civil rights reached its climax, Mitchell was a comrade in arms with such liberal East Coast Republicans as Jacob Javits, Clifford Case, Kenneth Keating and Hugh Scott. But he knew he needed more votes - the votes of conservative Midwestern Republicans - to break a filibuster led by Southern Democrats. Among the lawmakers Mitchell successfully courted were Gerald Ford (later president), Donald Rumsfeld (current defense secretary) and William McCulloch (then the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee).

Obviously, there is no comparison between Grandfather Mitchell's immense service to his country and Grandson Mitchell's self-serving antics to preserve his position in Annapolis. But Democrats, at their peril, should not take for granted the allegiance of African-Americans in general or the Mitchell family in particular. They have only to ponder what happened long ago to the Republicans.

Joseph R. L. Sterne, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, was an editorial page editor of The Sun.

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