Crusader for justice

Md.'s first black congressman served eight terms

Parren J. Mitchell 1922-2007

May 29, 2007|By SUN STAFF

Parren J. Mitchell, the first African-American elected to Congress from Maryland and a lifelong crusader for social justice for the nation's minorities, died yesterday of complications from pneumonia at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

He was 85 and had lived in a nursing home since a series of strokes several years ago.

A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and later its chairman, Mr. Mitchell was the younger brother of Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., Washington lobbyist for the NAACP in the hard-won civil rights struggles in Congress of the 1960s and 1970s.

He and other members of the family, including his brother and sister-in-law, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the longtime matriarch of Baltimore's civil rights movement, played important roles in social causes and held city and state offices.

"The Mitchell family is to social justice what the Rockefellers are to money," the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said when Clarence Mitchell died in 1984.

Parren Mitchell was elected in 1970 to the first of his eight terms in Congress from the 7th District, after holding posts in the administrations of Baltimore Mayors Theodore R. McKeldin and Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, and Gov. J. Millard Tawes.

In his 16 years representing his Baltimore district, he tried to ensure that black-owned businesses got their share of tax money spent on public works projects and called attention to what he considered instances of prejudice, such as alleged job bias on the Baltimore waterfront and promotion practices at Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn.

In the 1970s, he fought for legislation requiring local jurisdictions to set aside 10 percent of federal grants to hire minority contractors. In 1982, he attached a similar amendment to a multimillion-dollar highway bill.

It was part of a strategy he later characterized as the second phase of the civil rights movement, economic empowerment.

An avowed liberal, he was one of the first to advocate impeaching President Richard M. Nixon.

In the 1980s, he was an uncompromising opponent of the "supply side" economics promoted by President Ronald Reagan, calling such strategies "fiscal savagery against the poor."

"I am absolutely devastated," said Kweisi Mfume, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It is the same feeling I got when I learned my father died. He was like a second father to me. He sort of saved my life."

Mr. Mfume was 19 when he met Mr. Mitchell amid the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Mitchell offered him advice that day that he has used to inspire scores of youths who are cynical about their future, Mr. Mfume said.

"I was there, at the corner of Robert and Division streets, in the midst of the burnings and the riots," he said. "And he told me, `It's not how you start in life that counts. It's how you finish. I don't care where you think you are or where you're not. It's how you shape your life from here that matters.'"

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. called his uncle "a trailblazer. Every African-American elected official and every African-American minority business owes a tremendous debt to him."

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said, "When I think about Congressman Mitchell, I think about how he has contributed to the African-American community and planted the seeds for many to go into public life."

She said he inspired those who succeeded him in the 7th District seat, Mr. Mfume and Elijah E. Cummings, the incumbent.

Mr. Mitchell was "extremely strong," she said, when it came to confronting discrimination, especially in the area of small business.

"African-American minority business owes a tremendous debt to him," the mayor said.

Mr. Mitchell was born in Baltimore on April 29, 1922, the son of Clarence M. Mitchell Sr. and Elsie Davis Mitchell. His father was a waiter at the Rennert Hotel in downtown Baltimore.

In 1933, when Parren was 11 years old, brother Clarence returned home from Somerset County, where a black man had been lynched.

His brother, then a reporter for the Baltimore Afro American newspaper, was so shaken by the horror he had seen that he could not eat his dinner. Parren, listening with his similarly shocked siblings, "vowed on the spot to dedicate his life to the advancement of his fellow Negroes," Bradford M. Jacobs, a former Evening Sun editorial page editor, wrote in a 1965 profile of the family.

Aggressive, persistent and, in the view of critics, sometimes abrasive, Parren Mitchell never departed from that objective.

He graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1940 and served in the Army during World War II, winning a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in Italy.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1950 from what is now Morgan State University and applied for admission to the graduate program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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