From the Baltimore Sun
Tributes pouring in for Mitchell
Md. notables mark life of Baltimore congressman
By Eric Siegel and David Nitkin
May 30, 2007
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
"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.
Mitchell's older brother, the late Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., was the
NAACP's Washington lobbyist when Congress passed the landmark 1964
Civil Rights Act.
The civil rights background of the Mitchell family enabled Parren
Mitchell to bring "instant respect" to the newly created Congressional
Black Caucus, said Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, another founding
"While Parren had a sense of humor, there was no question that he was a
no-nonsense guy who enjoyed a credibility long before he came to the
Congress," Rangel said. "And it just merely allowed all of us to bask
in the great umbrella of credibility that he created for all of us. ...
He was a Mitchell. And therefore, as his brother was considered the
101st senator, Parren could come there as the 436th congressman."
Mitchell should best be remembered for his work on small-business
issues, Rangel said.
"His passion for entrepreneurship caused people who had no confidence
in politicians to respect his understanding and his fight for people
getting equity in businesses," he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, another Democrat, represents Mitchell's old
congressional district, the 7th. He said Mitchell never abandoned
politics or principles after leaving office and would regularly offer
advice or guidance in conversations interjected with stock phrases such
as "I'm a tough piece of leather, but I'm well put-together."
One instance came in 2004, when Cummings refused to schedule a meeting
between President Bush and the black caucus.
"I ran into him at some function, and he said 'I just want to thank you
for doing the right thing. You shouldn't have met with the president.
He apparently has no respect for the caucus,'" Cummings recalled. "It
was an affirmation that you had to stand up for something."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called Mitchell "a truly great leader from a
truly great generation.
"He was a path-breaker, a champion of social justice - and a dear
friend, mentor and colleague," she said in a statement.
"When I was a young social worker, he led our city's anti-poverty
program. When he was elected to Congress, I was a member of the
Baltimore City Council," she said. "When I was elected to Congress - we
both represented Baltimore. There wasn't a day that went by when we
didn't talk about how to help our hometown and the families who live
here. Like me, he believed in our city."
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin called Mitchell "fearless, determined and
committed to breaking down racial barriers."
Both Gov. Martin O'Malley and William Donald Schaefer, a former
governor and Baltimore mayor, issued statements yesterday praising
O'Malley called him a "transformational leader.
"In the midst of a time of upheaval and change, he saw clearly where
our nation's ongoing struggle for justice must head next - economic
opportunity for all," O'Malley said.
Schaefer called Mitchell a "true fighter for civil rights ... who
always had the best interests of his constituents in mind."
After announcing he would not seek a ninth term in Congress, Mitchell
made one last stab at elected office. In 1986, he joined the
gubernatorial ticket of then-Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs in a
long-shot race against Schaefer which Schaefer won handily.
Sachs recalled yesterday that the two ran on a theme of "One Maryland"
and emphasized social issues, which appealed to Mitchell.
Sachs remembered Mitchell for his oratorical ability - particulary his
penchant for quoting passages of poetry that he described as
"appropriate, uplifting and moving.
"What I used to marvel at was that he memorized these things and he
used them to such effect," Sachs said.
He also recalled borrowing a quotation from the liberal 20th century
American playwright Lillian Hellman in introducing Mitchell as his
"He didn't trim his conscience to fit this year's fashions," Sachs said.
Members of The Sun's staff contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun