From the Baltimore Sun
Parren Mitchell did what he had to do to help others
May 30, 2007
My introduction to Parren J. Mitchell came courtesy of a billboard and
an old rhythm and blues song.
It was September of 1968. I had just entered my senior year at
Baltimore City College. Mitchell, the eight-term former congressman who
died Monday, was making his first run for the House of Representatives
against incumbent Rep. Samuel N. Friedel. Mitchell's campaign slogan,
prominent on those billboards, urged his supporters to go out on
Election Day and "Do What You Gotta Do," which was the title of a
popular rhythm and blues song at the time.
Mitchell didn't win. In social studies class that week, my teacher, the
late Samuel Banks, explained why Mitchell didn't, and who both Mitchell
and Friedel were.
"There were no burning issues," Banks told the class. Friedel, he told
us, was a liberal who had supported every piece of civil rights
legislation that Congress passed during the 1960s. There was no
compelling reason for blacks to turn out en masse and vote for Mitchell
- who was then head of the city's Community Action Agency - and to turn
Friedel out of office. Mitchell's supporters, Banks concluded, didn't
do what they needed to do.
But they did in 1970, when Mitchell squeaked by Friedel by a mere 38
votes in the Democratic primary to become Maryland's first black
Before 1970, I didn't know Mitchell from just his billboards or
campaign slogans. I had met him personally.
Mitchell was a frequent speaker at meetings of the Black United Front,
an organization composed of several civil rights and black nationalist
organizations in Baltimore. (If a coalition between integrationist
civil rights groups and black nationalist groups sounds absurd, that's
because it was and is, but black unity was all the rage in the late
'60s and early '70s.)
Whether he was railing against slumlords or police misconduct, Mitchell
displayed the passion, fire and oratory that would get him elected and
re-elected to Congress. That zeal might have led to his being included
in the files of the Baltimore Police Department's Inspectional Services
Division, which kept dossiers on Baltimoreans whom then-Commissioner
Donald D. Pomerleau considered subversive.
In several Baltimore speeches after he was elected to Congress,
Mitchell hinted that he was on Pomerleau's bad list. (A 1974 report in
the Baltimore News American revealed that Mitchell and more than 300
other people and 60 organizations had open I.S.D. files.) My admiration
for him grew. Anybody on Pomerleau's bad list was automatically on my
good list. I suspect that throughout his life, Mitchell was on more
good lists than bad.
The late congressman is certainly on Larry Young's good list. Mitchell
was a mentor to Young, when he was still in high school. Mitchell was
head of the Community Action Agency when Young heard Mitchell give a
speech in West Baltimore.
"He took me aside [after the speech]," Young said yesterday. "He said,
'You come to my office when you get a chance.'" Young took Mitchell up
on the offer. Soon afterward, Young was appointed to Mayor Thomas
D'Alesandro III's Youth Advisory Council. In 1972, Mitchell donated
money to Young when he ran for a seat on the state Democratic Central
Committee. Mitchell introduced Young to his nephew, Clarence Mitchell
III, who was then a state senator from the 40th District. In 1974,
Clarence Mitchell III ran for senator and Young for the House of
Delegates on the same ticket.
Young never forgot the debt he owed to Parren Mitchell for giving him
his start in politics. In 1986, Young backed the Stephen H.
Sachs-Parren J. Mitchell ticket that opposed then-Baltimore Mayor
William Donald Schaefer in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
"I thought it was more important to stand with him," Young said of the
late congressman. "Parren would have been a wealthy man, if he'd used
his mind and commitment for something other than public service."
Wealthy in terms of material possessions, perhaps. But some would say
Parren Mitchell was wealthy in other ways.
"He inspired us to be public officials," Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell
Jr. said of himself and the younger generation of the Mitchell family.
"The one thing about my Uncle Parren was that most people see this
larger-than-life figure who was in Congress, but he was family."
The councilman remembers visiting his Uncle Parren in congressional
office buildings and meeting people like Speaker of the House Thomas P.
"Tip" O'Neill. But Keiffer Mitchell also remembers Thanksgiving and
Christmas dinners with his uncle.
"He'd be a few minutes late," Keiffer Mitchell said, "because he'd go
over to the [Maryland State] Penitentiary first and celebrate holiday
dinner with [the inmates]. His greatest legacy is that he was a
champion for the underdog, for those who felt they were left out of the
A legacy like that trumps financial wealth many times over.
Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun