From the Baltimore Sun
Parren J. Mitchell: 1922-2007
Crusader for justice dies at 85
Md.'s first black congressman served eight terms
May 29, 2007
Parren J. Mitchell, the first African-American elected to Congress from
Maryland and a lifelong crusader for social justice for the nation's
minorities, died yesterday of complications from pneumonia at Greater
Baltimore Medical Center.
He was 85 and had lived in a nursing home since a series of strokes
several years ago.
A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and later its
chairman, Mr. Mitchell was the younger brother of Clarence M. Mitchell
Jr., Washington lobbyist for the NAACP in the hard-won civil rights
struggles in Congress of the 1960s and 1970s.
He and other members of the family, including his brother and
sister-in-law, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the longtime matriarch of
Baltimore's civil rights movement, played important roles in social
causes and held city and state offices.
Kweisi Mfume, the former National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People president, and also a past holder of Mitchell's seat in
congress, called Mitchell "daring" and "far ahead of his time" and said
he "defined an era for social and political accomplishments in this
country. He gave America a sense of pride ... that it was OK to get
beyond the past and work toward the future together. He gave people
courage to stand up and speak truth to power."
A 19-year-old Mfume met Mitchell amid the fiery 1968 riots after Martin
Luther King's death. The advice Mitchell gave that day were the same
words Mfume said he has used to inspire scores of youth who are cynical
about the future.
"I was there, at the corner of Robert and Division streets in the midst
of the burnings and the riots," he said, "and he told me, 'It's not how
you start in life that counts. It's how you finish. I don't care where
you think you are or where you're not. It's how you shape your life
from here that matters.'"
Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon called Mitchell "a voice of conscience in
Maryland," adding, "He was a gentleman and a statesman. Many successful
and thriving minority and women owned businesses in this country owe
the protections and benefits they enjoy today to Parren Mitchell's
determination and expertise. ... We have lost a true giant. His bright
smile, his great sense of humor and his passion for public service will
always be remembered."
"The Mitchell family is to social justice what the Rockefellers are to
money," the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said when Clarence Mitchell died in
Parren Mitchell was elected in 1970 to the first of his eight terms in
Congress from the 7th District, after holding posts in the
administrations of Baltimore Mayors Theodore R. McKeldin and Thomas J.
D'Alesandro III, and Gov. J. Millard Tawes.
In his 16 years representing his Baltimore district, he tried to ensure
that black-owned businesses got their share of tax money spent on
public works projects and called attention to what he considered
instances of prejudice, such as alleged job bias on the Baltimore
waterfront and promotion practices at Social Security Administration
headquarters in Woodlawn.
In the 1970s, he fought for legislation requiring local jurisdictions
to set aside 10 percent of federal grants to hire minority contractors.
In 1982, he attached a similar amendment to a multimillion-dollar
It was part of a strategy he later characterized as the second phase of
the civil rights movement, economic empowerment.
An avowed liberal, he was one of the first to advocate impeaching
President Richard M. Nixon.
In the 1980s, he was an uncompromising opponent of the "supply side"
economics promoted by President Ronald Reagan, calling such strategies
"fiscal savagery against the poor."
City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. called his uncle "a
trailblazer. Every African-American elected official and every
African-American minority business owes a tremendous debt to him."
Mr. Mitchell was born in Baltimore on April 29, 1922, the son of
Clarence M. Mitchell Sr. and Elsie Davis Mitchell. His father was a
waiter at the Rennert Hotel in downtown Baltimore.
In 1933, when Parren was 11 years old, brother Clarence returned home
from Somerset County, where a black man had been lynched.
His brother, then a reporter for the Baltimore Afro American newspaper,
was so shaken by the horror he had seen that he could not eat his
dinner. Parren, listening with his similarly shocked siblings, "vowed
on the spot to dedicate his life to the advancement of his fellow
Negroes," Bradford M. Jacobs, a former Evening Sun editorial page
editor, wrote in a 1965 profile of the family.
Aggressive, persistent and, in the view of critics, sometimes abrasive,
Parren Mitchell never departed from that objective.
He graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1940 and served in
the Army during World War II, winning a Purple Heart for wounds
suffered in Italy.
He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1950 from what is now Morgan
State University and applied for admission to the graduate program at
the University of Maryland, College Park.
The college's president turned him down, saying it was "inadvisable"
for blacks to attend College Park. Instead, a separate graduate program
for off-campus study was established for him in Baltimore.
Mr. Mitchell sued and prevailed, becoming the first black person to
enroll in graduate classes at College Park.
He first came to widespread public notice in 1965 when, after a stint
as head of the state's Interracial Commission in the Tawes
administration, he was selected by Mayor McKeldin as executive director
of the Baltimore Community Action Agency, the local arm of President
Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.
As chief of the city anti-poverty agency, Mr. Mitchell became a
troubleshooter on racial problems, a mediator between civil rights
groups and the municipal government, and the city's negotiator with the
anti-poverty effort in Washington, where he gained a reputation as one
of the most effective anti-poverty administrators in the nation.
Mr. Mitchell remained through the early months of the D'Alesandro
administration and played a key mediation role during one of the most
searing episodes in 20th-century Baltimore history, the rioting that
followed the assassination of Dr. King in April 1968.
The Sun reported that Mr. Mitchell "was the only apparent link between
the militant civil rights groups and the city administration" during
three days and four nights of violence that was quelled after thousands
of Army and National Guard troops were sent into the city.
Mr. Mitchell resigned in July 1968, complaining that the mayor had
assigned him a subordinate role in the anti-poverty effort, a step that
Mr. D'Alesandro blamed on federal government dictates.
He joined the Morgan State faculty and made his first run for Congress,
a bid to unseat Samuel N. Friedel, who had represented the heavily
Jewish and Democratic 7th District since 1953. In the 1968 Democratic
primary, Mr. Mitchell got 15,000 votes, falling 5,500 short of Mr.
Friedel. But political experts were impressed.
Two years later, he defeated Mr. Friedel by 38 votes in the 40 percent
black district as a third major candidate, a Jewish state senator,
drained away votes from the popular incumbent.
Opposition to the Vietnam War was growing at the time, and
African-Americans were becoming increasingly militant in seeking equal
economic opportunity. The nation was still recovering from the
assassinations two months apart of Dr. King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
Mr. Mitchell hit Capitol Hill at full throttle, ignoring the tradition
that freshmen should be seen and not heard.
Days after his inauguration, he and the other 12 black members of the
House boycotted Mr. Nixon's State of the Union address. Two months
later, the newly established Congressional Black Caucus met with the
Late in his congressional career, Mr. Mitchell was grazed by - but not
implicated in - a wide-ranging scandal involving Wedtech Corp., a
Bronx, N.Y.-based defense contractor, that led to the federal
convictions of more than a dozen defendants, including two of his
nephews and a member of Congress.
The nephews, Clarence M. Mitchell III and his brother, Michael B.
Mitchell, were convicted in federal court in 1987 of accepting $50,000
from Wedtech to obstruct an investigation of the company by the House
Small Business Committee, which Representative Mitchell headed. Each
was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.
There was no evidence that the brothers did anything to block an
investigation or that they contacted their uncle about it. A prosecutor
called the congressman an "unwitting victim."
Mr. Mitchell stood by his nephews, testifying as a defense witness at
In 1985, at age 63, Mr. Mitchell announced after much speculation about
his plans that he would not seek re-election for a ninth term in
But retirement from the House did not mean retirement from public life.
Eight months later, Mr. Mitchell joined the ticket of gubernatorial
candidate Stephen H. Sachs as a candidate for lieutenant governor.
Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer handily defeated Mr. Sachs in
At his death, Mr. Mitchell had a lawsuit pending against The Sun
alleging trespass and invasion of privacy stemming from reporting by
the newspaper on the handling of his assets by a nephew who had power
of attorney for the former congressman.
Out of public office and before his health waned, Mr. Mitchell remained
engaged in the fight for civil rights.
"If you believe in fighting racism, you make a commitment for the rest
of your life," he said in a 1989 speech to the Baltimore teachers union
observing Dr. King's birthday.
"There's no getting off that train. You can't say I've put five years
in fighting racism and now I'm finished. No, you are not finished. Our
job is to fight it every day, to continue to shove it down and when it
rises up to shove it down even harder."
Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun