Politician Carried On A Civil Rights Legacy
Activist Was Md.'s 1st Black Congressman

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007; B01

Parren J. Mitchell, 85, a Baltimore civil rights activist who became Maryland's first black member of Congress in 1970, died May 28 of complications from pneumonia at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He had been living in a nursing home since a series of strokes several years ago.

A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and chairman of the House Small Business Committee, Mitchell (D) worked for years to ensure minority participation in contracts let under federal public works programs. He was an original sponsor of legislation approved in 1977 guaranteeing minority contractors a share in public works spending. He also sponsored an amendment to the 1982 Surface Transportation Assistance Act requiring that at least 10 percent of the funds provided under the law go to small businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged people.

He considered these and related economic measures the second phase of the civil rights movement.

A trim 5-foot-5, he was known as "the Little General" during his tenure as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a tribute to his ability to organize his forces quickly.

During the Carter administration, he urged the government to oppose South Africa's apartheid regime. In 1985, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it was Mitchell's impassioned plea for sanctions against South Africa that persuaded him to accept a tougher measure than the Senate originally backed.

He also served on the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, considered in those days to be the legislative guardian of minority business.

Those who worked with Mitchell said he was basically a shy person and invariably courteous in one-on-one settings, but he could be fiery and outspoken when he encountered what he considered injustice. In 1968, when Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew (R) called together a group of black leaders in response to rioting in Maryland cities, Mitchell stormed out as the governor began berating them.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Mitchell called Ronald Reagan a "clear and present danger to black Americans." Two years later, he blamed the president for rising unemployment.

After two nights of watching "Roots," the 1977 television miniseries tracing author Alex Haley's family from slavery to freedom, he angrily turned off the TV. "If I had met any of my white friends, I would have lashed out at them from a vortex of primeval emotion," he said.

"Parren's emotion is the emotion of a Patrick Henry. He didn't say give me liberty later," his sister-in-law, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, told The Washington Post in 1977. "Parren is just one of God's angry men."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) described Mitchell as "a true servant leader, never concerning himself about fame or fortune but, rather, devoting himself entirely to uplifting the people he represented." Cummings, who occupies the 7th District seat once held by Mitchell, sponsored legislation last year that named a Baltimore post office in the veteran congressman's honor.

Parren James Mitchell was born in Baltimore. In a 1985 interview with The Post, he recalled being about 12 when his older brother, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., burst into the house at dinnertime, violently ill. Working as a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, he had just seen the body of a black man who had been lynched in Somerset County.

It was a troubling initiation into a racist culture frustratingly familiar to African American residents of the almost-Southern city of Baltimore. It was a culture that the Mitchell family refused to accept.

Mitchell's brother, whom he called "my big brother hero," would become director of the Washington office of the NAACP from 1950 to 1979. His sister-in-law was a prominent civil rights lawyer in Baltimore.

At an early age, Mitchell was walking picket lines with his brother outside segregated department stores, theaters and an amusement park. He graduated from Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School in 1940 and served in the Army during World War II. He was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds he suffered in Italy.

He received an undergraduate degree in 1950 from what would become Morgan State University and applied for admission to graduate school at the University of Maryland in College Park. The university president turned him down, ruling that it was "inadvisable" for blacks to attend College Park. He proposed that Mitchell attend a separate graduate program in Baltimore.

Mitchell sued and won, thus becoming the first African American graduate student at College Park. He received his master's degree in sociology in 1952.

He worked as a probation officer and head of Baltimore's antipoverty program before becoming an assistant professor of sociology at Morgan State, where he also directed the school's Urban Studies Institute.

He came to public prominence in 1968 when he helped mediate rioting that broke out in Baltimore after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. He ran for Congress in 1968 but lost in the Democratic primary.

He ran again in 1970, defeating a veteran incumbent by just 38 votes in the primary. Considered too liberal by some House colleagues and too blunt by others, he never lost his outrage on behalf of the poor and minorities.

In 1977, the minority set-aside programs he so proudly championed came under attack in Congress when it was revealed that many contracts that were supposed to be set aside for minority business owners were going to African Americans fronting for white contractors. In one hearing, Mitchell scathingly denounced "these white knaves and their black Judas Iscariots" for undermining the program.

In the mid-1980s, members of Mitchell's family besmirched the ideals in which he believed. Two nephews who were then state senators -- Clarence M. Mitchell III and his brother, Michael B. Mitchell -- were convicted in federal court in 1987 of accepting $50,000 from the Wedtech Corp. to obstruct a House Small Business Committee investigation of the Bronx-based defense contractor.

Although Mitchell headed the committee at the time, he was not implicated in the scandal. His nephews were sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.

Mitchell retired after eight terms, expressing frustration with the Democratic Party that it was "trying to out-Republican the Republicans." Congress, he said, "has lost its sense of compassion" and was chipping away at the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement.

In 1986, he joined the Democratic gubernatorial ticket of Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs. Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer easily defeated Sachs in the primary.

In retirement, he continued to work three days a week on social and political issues and served as chairman of the nonprofit Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund.

There are no immediate survivors.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company