Leader, mentor and friend

May 31, 2007|By Steven T. Mitchell

There's a reunion going on in heaven right about now that not too many people know about. When I think about it, all I can do is smile.

Memorial Day marked the passing of one of our great icons, former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell of Baltimore, a true giant of a man and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Mr. Mitchell (no relation to me) touched countless thousands of lives in his decades of service, and this story from a little over 20 years ago is just one case that demonstrates what kind of person he was.

In 1986, there was this 21-year-old kid from Chicago who moved to Baltimore. At the time, that kid worked in the political organization of Harold S. Washington, Chicago's first African-American mayor and, until 1983, a member of that same Congressional Black Caucus.

When the kid told Mr. Washington that he was moving to Baltimore, Mr. Washington gave the kid what was broached as an assignment but what really was a huge favor to the kid.

"When you get to Baltimore," he said, "go see my friend, Congressman Parren Mitchell." He gave the kid an envelope - some type of note or letter - and told him to deliver it in person. The kid never knew what was in the envelope, but it became clear that this was just done to facilitate some sort of introduction.

The kid had that meeting and delivered that note in a memorable encounter at Mr. Mitchell's office at Morgan State University, when Mr. Mitchell was near the end of his service in Congress. It was the type of meeting that could change a young person's life - and it did.

You're hearing the stories now, about all of the lives that Mr. Mitchell touched and all of the people whom he helped. All of those stories are true; that's who this man was. It didn't matter if you were down and out and considered by some as being not worthy of their time, or if you were an up-and-coming scholar or a future congressman. He treated everybody the same, he let you know you mattered, and he always followed through.

This kid, though, he was luckier than most, because - on that day at Morgan State University in 1986 - he got to meet a man who would truly shape his definition of a "mentor."

One of the things that the kid learned, over the years, was that Mr. Mitchell was truly appalled by the horrific level of black-on-black violence among our youths. He felt that we were in real danger of losing a whole generation of our young people, who had talents and abilities that we would never see.

There was one area, though, that he felt very strongly about, where the congressman was clearly wrong.

Mr. Mitchell once told the kid - in that very first meeting, in fact - that he believed his generation had somehow "failed" this younger generation in terms of the world and the society that it had left behind. On that point, with all due respect to the departed, the congressman was absolutely incorrect.

The generation that came before us - the leaders, the "warriors" of the civil rights movement - they were heroes. They were an inspiration to those who came up behind them, and it was an awesome treat to be in the presence of any of them, especially an icon such as Mr. Mitchell.

Twenty-one years later, that "kid" isn't much of a kid anymore. He's trying to run a mentoring program himself because of people like Parren Mitchell and Harold Washington, who showed him what mentoring was all about. And that's key: They didn't just tell him, they showed him.

Back to that reunion in heaven.

When I went to that meeting to see Mr. Mitchell in 1986 (yes, I was the "kid" in question) and he opened up that envelope from Mr. Washington - I still don't know what was in it - he smiled and then he laughed so hard he had tears in his eyes. I don't know what was going on between those two (who knows, maybe it was a joke about me), but I know that they were true friends. Mr. Mitchell told me that Mr. Washington was like "a brother" to him.

Many readers will remember that Mayor Washington suddenly passed away shortly after Thanksgiving in 1987. I'm still sad about that.

But I have a feeling that when Mr. Mitchell got to those "pearly gates," there was a big ol' bear of a man waiting for him with a great big smile. And I'm quite sure that when the two of them look down, they'll realize that they left the world a better place.

Steven T. Mitchell, a native of Chicago, is president and founder of Take Back the City Inc. and is founder and coordinator of the Winning Teams Mentoring Program. His e-mail is chitown06@aol.com.

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