Truth to power

May 30, 2007

In his single-minded quest to win economic equality for black Americans, Parren J. Mitchell was the opposite of a go-along-to-get-along guy.

The former congressman, who died Monday at 85, would be known in Washington as a pragmatist, but at home in Baltimore and at key junctures of his career, Mr. Mitchell wielded an admirably sharp tongue that cut through the haze of a racially troubled era.

He charged the Social Security Administration with discrimination because the black men and women who made up a third of the work force couldn't crack top salary ranks. He contended that the federal government was using poor and black Marylanders as "guinea pigs" to test a swine flu vaccine. Long before he first won his House seat by 38 votes in an election marked by dysfunction at the polls, Mr. Mitchell said he feared voting irregularities. And he lost the support of this page for re-election in 1972 in part by making the observation: "The only way you get any power is to reach out and snatch it."

The verb may have been unfortunate, coming soon after rioting and looting in Baltimore in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. But Mr. Mitchell's message that the disadvantaged had to be a big part of their own salvation still rings true - as do many of his other observations.

"He gave people courage to stand up and speak truth to power," said Kweisi Mfume. One of many younger black politicians mentored by Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Mfume inherited the seat in which Mr. Mitchell served eight terms as the first black member of Maryland's congressional delegation.

During those years, Mr. Mitchell worked to deliver the economic empowerment he considered the second phase of the civil rights movement. His greatest success came in ensuring minority businesses a cut of the pie on federal contracts. His big dream of a massive jobs program was doomed by poor timing - he served under three Republican presidents and one tight-fisted Democrat.

But P.J., as he was known, kept on generating heat when the notion struck him, and in the process blazed a trail for which all Americans should be grateful.

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