Part 1 of a two-part tribute to recognize and honor Clarence Mitchell Jr. on his 100th birthday.
The year was 1933. George Armwood, a Black man in his 20s, had been lynched in Princess Anne County, Md., by a mob of angry White men who served as Armwood’s judge, jury and executioner. “When you see a fellow human with a rope around his neck and skin coming off his body, you don’t need to add any touches of horror,” Clarence Mitchell Jr., a young reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper, testified at an anti-lynching legislation hearing on Capitol Hill. Though Mitchell wasn’t an eyewitness to the murder, the incident left a lifelong imprint that propelled a career of crusading for racial equality in America.
Mitchell was born in Baltimore in 1911, one of seven children, to Elsie Davis Mitchell and Clarence M. Mitchell Sr. At the start of the Great Depression, the family set their roots in West Baltimore’s Harlem Park. Mitchell Sr. worked as a waiter in hotels and the Gibson Island Club while Elsie, a homemaker, took in boarders and did laundry for supplemental income. As he grew older, Mitchell worked odd jobs to help his family and solidified his reputation around town as a boxer and an honest young man who exemplified the values instilled by his mother.
After graduating from Douglass High School, Mitchell pursued further studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and the University of Minnesota. He became the executive secretary for the Urban League in St. Paul in 1937. While in Minnesota, the young civil rights worker led a successful campaign to end employment discrimination practices against African-American municipal workers and impacted legislation that would end discriminatory practices in the sale of automotive insurance.
Shortly after, he returned to Baltimore and married Juanita Jackson in 1938. At the time Jackson worked as an activist for the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where her mother Dr. Lillie Jackson led the efforts of the civil rights organization. The two began a legacy of fighting racial discrimination wherever it was encountered and wherever they were needed.
Clarence Davis, former Maryland state legislator and family friend recalls a driven, hard working man who stood up for his beliefs and values. “He was a tall, rangy, no nonsense kind of guy,” said Davis, who represented Baltimore’s 45th District in the General Assembly until 2007. “He never failed.”
Davis remembers a direct confrontation with Mitchell that he now recalls fondly. “I thought he was going to hit me,” laughed Davis. “I made a statement, which I won’t repeat, and Clarence thought it was a derogatory comment. He confronted me and we’re standing there face to face when he shifts the books he was carrying to his other hand and I thought, ‘This is it, he is going to hit me.’ He was tough.”
The couple had four sons, Clarence III, Keiffer, Michael and George, who would later join their parent’s crusade against racial injustice.
“Juanita was a marvelous lady, full of energy and life. You would see her in court moving about so much she could barely keep her hat on,” said Davis of the first African-American female admitted to practice law in Maryland. “You put those two together and they were unstoppable. They set standards of confrontation and protest that none of us can compare to.”
Mitchell’s work and tireless campaign continued in Washington when he became the assistant director of Negro Manpower Service for the U.S. War Commission in 1942. Under the direction of President Franklin Roosevelt, the Manpower Commission was created during World War II to determine the most efficient use of labor in various industries that would most effectively support the war effort.
It is there that Davis said Mitchell made a significant impact on African-American soldiers who faced discrimination in the Armed Forces both on U.S. soil and overseas. “He represented our interests when no one else would,” said Davis, who is also an Air Force veteran. “By the time Clarence was appointed to the head of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP , whenever you had a problem with racial discrimination all you had to do was mention NAACP and everyone, generals, soldiers, knew what that meant. I benefited greatly from his presence in Washington.”
The man that never ran for elected office, became known as the “101st Senator” due to his influence on more legislation to end segregation in housing, employment, education and the military than most lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “I always try hard to see the other fellow’s point of view,” Mitchell said in a 1964 interview. “If I can’t win them over, then I try to neutralize them. I have found that there are many members of Congress who can’t be written off as hopeless on civil rights. It’s true some Southern members show some hostility, but there are also many who see the justice and necessity of civil rights legislation.”
See the concluding part of this tribute to Clarence Mitchell Jr. in the next edition of the Baltimore AFRO-American Newspaper and on Afro.com.