My introduction to Parren J. Mitchell came courtesy of a billboard and an old rhythm and blues song.
It was September of 1968. I had just entered my senior year at Baltimore City College. Mitchell, the eight-term former congressman who died Monday, was making his first run for the House of Representatives against incumbent Rep. Samuel N. Friedel. Mitchell's campaign slogan, prominent on those billboards, urged his supporters to go out on Election Day and "Do What You Gotta Do," which was the title of a popular rhythm and blues song at the time.
Mitchell didn't win. In social studies class that week, my teacher, the late Samuel Banks, explained why Mitchell didn't, and who both Mitchell and Friedel were.
"There were no burning issues," Banks told the class. Friedel, he told us, was a liberal who had supported every piece of civil rights legislation that Congress passed during the 1960s. There was no compelling reason for blacks to turn out en masse and vote for Mitchell - who was then head of the city's Community Action Agency - and to turn Friedel out of office. Mitchell's supporters, Banks concluded, didn't do what they needed to do.
But they did in 1970, when Mitchell squeaked by Friedel by a mere 38 votes in the Democratic primary to become Maryland's first black congressman.
Before 1970, I didn't know Mitchell from just his billboards or campaign slogans. I had met him personally.
Mitchell was a frequent speaker at meetings of the Black United Front, an organization composed of several civil rights and black nationalist organizations in Baltimore. (If a coalition between integrationist civil rights groups and black nationalist groups sounds absurd, that's because it was and is, but black unity was all the rage in the late '60s and early '70s.)
Whether he was railing against slumlords or police misconduct, Mitchell displayed the passion, fire and oratory that would get him elected and re-elected to Congress. That zeal might have led to his being included in the files of the Baltimore Police Department's Inspectional Services Division, which kept dossiers on Baltimoreans whom then-Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau considered subversive.
In several Baltimore speeches after he was elected to Congress, Mitchell hinted that he was on Pomerleau's bad list. (A 1974 report in the Baltimore News American revealed that Mitchell and more than 300 other people and 60 organizations had open I.S.D. files.) My admiration for him grew. Anybody on Pomerleau's bad list was automatically on my good list. I suspect that throughout his life, Mitchell was on more good lists than bad.
The late congressman is certainly on Larry Young's good list. Mitchell was a mentor to Young, when he was still in high school. Mitchell was head of the Community Action Agency when Young heard Mitchell give a speech in West Baltimore.
"He took me aside [after the speech]," Young said yesterday. "He said, `You come to my office when you get a chance.'" Young took Mitchell up on the offer. Soon afterward, Young was appointed to Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III's Youth Advisory Council. In 1972, Mitchell donated money to Young when he ran for a seat on the state Democratic Central Committee. Mitchell introduced Young to his nephew, Clarence Mitchell III, who was then a state senator from the 40th District. In 1974, Clarence Mitchell III ran for senator and Young for the House of Delegates on the same ticket.
Young never forgot the debt he owed to Parren Mitchell for giving him his start in politics. In 1986, Young backed the Stephen H. Sachs-Parren J. Mitchell ticket that opposed then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
"I thought it was more important to stand with him," Young said of the late congressman. "Parren would have been a wealthy man, if he'd used his mind and commitment for something other than public service."
Wealthy in terms of material possessions, perhaps. But some would say Parren Mitchell was wealthy in other ways.
"He inspired us to be public officials," Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said of himself and the younger generation of the Mitchell family. "The one thing about my Uncle Parren was that most people see this larger-than-life figure who was in Congress, but he was family."
The councilman remembers visiting his Uncle Parren in congressional office buildings and meeting people like Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. But Keiffer Mitchell also remembers Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with his uncle.
"He'd be a few minutes late," Keiffer Mitchell said, "because he'd go over to the [Maryland State] Penitentiary first and celebrate holiday dinner with [the inmates]. His greatest legacy is that he was a champion for the underdog, for those who felt they were left out of the process."
A legacy like that trumps financial wealth many times over.