A legacy of passionate resolve in a state resisting change

June 03, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

Long after Jim Crow might have retired in the interests of simple decency, Maryland officials were still trying to keep black students out of the University of Maryland, College Park.

The curtain of racial exclusivity there was shoved aside, finally, in 1950 by Parren J. Mitchell, the former congressman who died on Memorial Day. Mr. Mitchell - known as "P. J." to many in Baltimore - served in the Army during World War II and was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded in Italy.

He won equally high honors for his lifelong service in the battle for civil rights in the United States. In 1950, he became the first black student to enroll in graduate classes at College Park, a well-guarded whites-only bastion of segregation long after the university system and state government as a whole had been forced to concede that blacks had a right to be educated in institutions they were helping to finance. By then, most of Maryland's professional schools, most of them in Baltimore, had allowed black students to enroll.

The university's school of law had been open to blacks since 1936, when Donald Gaines Murray, an Amherst College graduate, was admitted. The case was argued by Thurgood Marshall of Baltimore. The ruling, appealed by the state but affirmed by the Maryland Court of Appeals, was thought to be an important early step on the road to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation and anti-discrimination case. The state had tried to keep its law school segregated, conceding in court that its policy was to exclude applicants of color.

Maryland's strategy of exclusion in those days involved giving grudgingly when necessary in the face of legal necessity but never abandoning its view that a whites-only policy was defensible if some gesture were made toward the U.S. Supreme Court's "separate but equal" ruling. Officials had tried to mollify Mr. Mitchell (and the high court) with a special program for him alone in Baltimore. He declined - as did young lawyers such as the late Judge William G. Murphy, who earlier turned aside financial incentives offered if he would attend law school elsewhere.

Mr. Mitchell's resolve helped define the man. And his refusal helped to highlight the bankruptcy of Maryland's resistance to civil rights. That strategy might have been called bar and retreat: Throw up an argument for your discriminatory practice, and retreat only when forced by the courts. Create an engine for change - a commission, for example - but keep your foot on the brake. Allow Donald Murray into the law school, but admit no precedent applicable to other schools. Nod in the direction of Brown , but interpret the court's "with all deliberate speed" order to mean no speed at all. Pass an open accommodations law, but exempt an entire region of the state (the Eastern Shore) or an entire industry (bars and taverns). Recognize the justice of equal pay for teachers, but decline to impose an equal-pay requirement on local school districts. Bar black people from Baltimore's Pratt librarian school, force a court lawsuit, and when you lose, close the school rather than admit black students.

This strategy was part of the Jim Crow world encountered by Parren Mitchell; by his more famous brother, Clarence, the NAACP's chief lobbyist in Washington; by Clarence's wife, Juanita Jackson Mitchell; and by her mother, Lillie May Jackson, grande dame of civil rights in Maryland for many years. Parren Mitchell might well have been cast into the shadows by his family, but he established his own unique profile.

He was one of the last Mitchells to make groundbreaking civil rights news. He was slight of stature but an imposing and eloquent figure in debate. Impassioned is a word often used to describe him. He was not reluctant to take on presidents if he found them insufficiently sensitive to the rights of his poor, black constituents.

Tomorrow, friends and acquaintances of the Mitchell family will gather to honor his life. It will be one of those bittersweet, post-civil rights celebrations. Funerals and wakes and memorial services are moments now for contemplating progress and work still to be done, and for marveling at how ideas and men could drive action to erase what appeared to be permanent stains on the national honor: "Just the way it is," people had said before the movement.

A centuries-old willingness to endure the pain of exclusion and discrimination had been put on the run by emboldened foes, black and white.

Parren Mitchell was one of those who said: Enough.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news editor for WYPR-FM and author of the forthcoming book "Here Lies Jim Crow." His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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