They came in droves to pay tribute yesterday to a man they lauded as a civil rights pioneer, mentor and uncompromising activist for social justice. And together, the political dignitaries, civic leaders and family members made one promise: The legacy of Parren J. Mitchell will live on.
Mitchell, who died May 28 of complications from pneumonia, was remembered during a four-hour memorial service at West Baltimore's cavernous St. James Episcopal Church for his remarkable firsts.
He sued the University of Maryland, College Park and became the first black student to enroll in its graduate courses. And in 1970, Mitchell became the first African-American elected to Congress from Maryland.
Over the course of eight terms, the slight, soft-spoken official became known as an eloquent debater and firebrand. He helped found the Congressional Black Caucus, later serving as its chairman. And as a passionate advocate for economic opportunity, he successfully fought for minority set-asides for government contracts.
"He came as a pioneer, he came to make a difference, he came as a fighter," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the more than 300 mourners who packed the church, as scores more admirers sat in lawn chairs in Lafayette Square, where speakers broadcast the service.
"Across the 85 years of Parren Mitchell's life - in his own story and the story of America - we see the slow march of progress," said Pelosi, who recalled how her family admired Mitchell. He had held posts in the administrations of two Baltimore mayors, Theodore R. McKeldin and Pelosi's brother, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III.
"We celebrate today a man who made sure that, however slow at times, we continue to march in the right direction - toward peace, understanding, and justice for all," Pelosi said.
In addition to Pelosi, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan - who helped found the caucus with Mitchell - spoke during the service.
Who's who of politics
The list of attendees read like a who's who of Maryland politics, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, Maryland Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, Mayor Sheila Dixon, numerous members of Maryland's congressional delegation and the General Assembly and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who called Mitchell his "political father."
"Common law and experience tells us politics changes people," Mfume said. "But Parren changed politics. He put a human face on it. He made it real."
Mfume, also former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, implored Mitchell's mourners not only to cherish his legacy, but to live it.
"Let us not leave his memory at the corner of Civil Rights Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard," he said. "He is still with us. Every time we knock a brick out of the wall of poverty, Parren Mitchell lives."
Each speaker praised Mitchell as a voice for the voiceless, a decorated World War II veteran and a master politician who never forgot the people he was elected to represent.
"The best advice he ever told me was `Always be part of the people,'" said his great-nephew, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.
One after another, politicians and noted civic leaders lauded Mitchell, whom they affectionately remembered as "P.J.," as an early inspiration in their lives.
The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple, spoke of how as a little boy, he hoped to emulate Mitchell.
"Before my first day of elementary school, I went to his office overwhelmed by this classy and distinguished man," said Bryant. "I went to kindergarten that day with a briefcase - with absolutely nothing in it. ... He gave the inspiration that I could be anything."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who represents Mitchell's old 7th Congressional District, delivered a eulogy that recounted his first memory of Mitchell: the young civil rights leader battling to desegregate Baltimore's Riverside swimming pool. Cummings, then 8, was awe-struck.
Later, Mitchell would inspire Cummings to run for the House of Delegates and then for Congress.
"My mother and my father had a first-grade education ... They only dreamed of me graduating high school," said Cummings. "But God sent Parren along and he said, `You can do better than that.' He taught us we could dream big."
Mitchell's confidence and determination came through in one of his stock phrases, said Cummings: "I'm a tough piece of leather, but I'm well put-together."
"Not a lot of people can say that without other people hating on them," said Cummings. "But he said it to project to us, `Don't let anybody tell you, `You can't do it.'"
Mitchell's gifts were not only his fearlessness and perseverance, but also his humility, which enabled him to empathize with everyday people, no matter how much his stature rose, said Cummings.
Family members recounted the gentle side of Mitchell, who never married and had no children, but was known fondly as "Uncle Parren." They told stories of family snowball fights and practical jokes, eliciting chuckles from the packed pews.