Lisa Mitchell Sennaar (Courtesy Photo)
By Lisa Mitchell Sennaar
“I became convinced that the quickest way to get our constitutional rights is to start sitting in the state legislature and other political bodies as members,” Del. Clarence Mitchell III said in 1964.
Clarence Mitchell III taught us that all politics is local and that every vote counts. Clarence III was a founding member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. In 1962, he won a seat in Maryland’s House of Delegates, at the age of 22, becoming the youngest person elected to a legislature in the country. Mitchell sponsored Maryland’s first successful Public Accommodations Law in 1964 and in 1966, ran for and won a seat in the Maryland senate. He was also a founding member of Maryland Legislative Black Caucus in 1970 (now the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland) and a founding member and the second President of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators in 1977.
It’s helpful to look back at our community’s early organizing to gain perspective. The formation of the Baltimore City-wide Young People’s Forum in 1931, engaged several hundred to 2,000 people weekly until about 1942. The organization helped to awaken and politically educate local residents, hasten an end to lynching and gain jobs for local residents. The momentum from the forum dovetailed into the 1935 campaign to reorganize the Baltimore Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP’s reorganization resulted in new leadership and decades of some of the most important civil rights gains in the country. The 1942 historic March on Annapolis organized by the Citizens Committee for Justice (CCJ), a coalition of 150 organizations including churches, labor unions, political groups, fraternities, civic and social clubs presented Governor Herbert O’Conor petitions signed by over 4,000 by Marylanders seeking redress to criminal injustice and Baltimore police misconduct. Organizers learned that mobilization would be more effective when accompanied by voter participation.
So, in 1944, the NAACP Maryland State Conference of the Branches, held its fourth annual session at Baltimore’s Historic Union Baptist Church. “Resolutions were adopted to make full and effective use of the organization’s weapons: the ballot, the courts, strong protest and education to win full citizenship for Black residents.” Conference speaker Marse S. Callaway told attendees that only about 10 percent of eligible Black residents at that time were exercising their right to vote as compared to 80 percent of other nationalities. In one of the conference sessions titled, “The Ballot as a Weapon” Mrs. Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Director of the NAACP “Votes for Victory” campaign, urged full use of the ballot “…as a duty to our brothers in the south and as a rightful privilege to ourselves.” She went on to state, “The NAACP was a political organization, but not politically minded and that the NAACP was non-partisan.” She said, “We give our people the records of those who are for or against our race and let them make their own decision.”
The Baltimore Branch NAACP leadership understood the power of Black voter participation. The Branch created and sustained local voter education, registration and get out the vote drives starting in 1942, that intensified in 1957. By September of 1968, 144,000 Black Baltimoreans or 67 percent of those eligible were registered to vote. In 1968, when the Baltimore Branch of NAACP launched its annual membership drive, they had about 30,000 dues paying members. NAACP members were the foot soldiers that sustained the organization’s voter participation drives. Black voter participation had resulted in the election of two Black Maryland state senators, eleven members of the house of delegates, three Baltimore City councilmembers, passage of state-wide public accommodation, equal employment, fair housing, repeal of anti-miscegenation and municipal civil rights laws. Branch members were armed with the information that gave them a sense of mission to sustain the voter education, registration and participation effort. This sustained engagement was key to its success.
History teaches us that our community’s organization and mobilization around voter education, registration and participation efforts have been most successful when they have been consistent and sustained.
Lisa Mitchell Sennaar’s career includes a decade in television and radio production and broadcast. Her family, the Jackson/Mitchells of Maryland left their imprint on the Civil Rights Revolution of the 20th Century, serving and helping to build local, state and national organizations; also serving at every level of government: The United Nations, House of Representatives, Maryland State Legislature and Baltimore City Council. Lisa works in state government, is married and the mother of two teenagers.
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