Tributes pouring in for Mitchell

Md. notables mark life of Baltimore congressman

May 30, 2007|By Eric Siegel and David Nitkin | Eric Siegel and David Nitkin,Sun reporters

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who grew up in Little Italy, said, "The Mitchell family was revered in my home."

With the death of Parren J. Mitchell, the first African-American elected to Congress from Maryland, Pelosi said, "Baltimore has lost one of its favorite sons."

Mitchell, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, died Monday at age 85 of complications from pneumonia.

The Mitchell family will receive visitors from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday at the St. James Parish Center, 1020 W. Lafayette Ave., where photos and memorabilia from Mitchell's life and career will be on display.

A memorial service will be held Tuesday from noon to 2 p.m. at St. James Episcopal Church, 1020 West Lafayette Ave.

As news of Mitchell's death spread, Pelosi and other friends and admirers offered their recollections of the man who used his sharp, silver tongue to wage war against racial discrimination and to serve as the voice for the voiceless.

During his eight terms in Congress, the slight, bespectacled, soft-spoken man fought successfully for minority set-asides on federal contracts; vigorously opposed the "supply-side" and "trickle-down" economics of the Reagan administration of the 1980s and promoted minority ownership as head of the House Small Business Committee.

Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, called Mitchell the "father of minority-business set-asides at the federal level" and a "seminal figure" in advocating for black businesses.

"Parren Mitchell saw the need for this, understood it and figured out a public policy approach for dealing with," Morial said.

Kurt L. Schmoke, the dean of the Howard University School of Law, who served three terms as Baltimore's mayor, said, "There's a phrase that I think really captures his views."

"He tried to convey to people that civil rights was also silver rights - that building businesses, employing people and creating economic development opportunities were real challenges," said Schmoke.

"The one thing that's pretty clear about his political career is he was genuinely a national leader," Schmoke added. "He was the leading light on black economic development for a couple of decades."

Former U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who entered the House with Mitchell in 1970, recalled Mitchell as "immensely effective in the Congress.

"On the one hand, he was a very strong and forceful advocate," Sarbanes said. "He combined that with an ability to talk to people on the other side. No one could dismiss or ignore Parren, that was for sure."

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said Mitchell was a "tremendous leader, not just for African-Americans but for all people having difficulty because of discrimination or prejudice.

"He was perceived as a real firebrand, and a fighter. But he was always willing to sit down and say `How do we solve problems?'" Hoyer recalled.

Mitchell graduated from Frederick Douglass High School and what is now Morgan State University, and earned a masters degree in sociology from the University of Maryland. He was a member of a prominent Baltimore family that played key roles in the national and local civil rights battle. In 1970, Mitchell was elected to the House of Representatives after heading the city's anti-poverty agency.

Mitchell said he believed that the anti-poverty agency's policies should be aimed at helping to rebuild black family units that had been weakened by generations of poverty. "Slavery," he once said, had "prevented Negro families from forming, and for the century since then, the tradition hung on."

Mitchell's first attempt to secure a congressional seat fell short when he failed to unseat Samuel N. Friedel in the 1968 Democratic primary. But two years later, he bested Friedel by 38 votes.

"I always used that election in subsequent years when I would speak to groups about political participation and involvement," Sarbanes said. "People would say, `What difference does my vote make?' This is one instance where a few votes made a great deal of difference."

During his first months in Congress, Mitchell accused the House leadership of racial discrimination in the staffing of committees, took up the cause of an Army lieutenant who had proclaimed himself a conscientious objector several years after graduating from West Point, instigated a congressional investigation into politically connected Baltimore savings and loans that had been accused of financing housing speculators who were suspected of bilking the poor, and called for diplomatic recognition of China.

Mitchell also drew notice for boycotting with 12 other black members President Richard M. Nixon's State of the Union address and later for being one of the first congressmen to call for Nixon's impeachment.

But he is also remembered for his role as a founding member and later chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and as an advocate for African-American economic empowerment.

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