Almost a decade before a young preacher from Alabama led thousands to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Clarence Mitchell, Jr., begun his tireless campaign in the halls of Congress to end racial inequality. In 1950, Mitchell took the helm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Washington Bureau. The lawyer and columnist for the Afro-American Newspapers had substantial victories against racial segregation and inequalities in the military as well as employment discrimination in his cache by the time he took the position. It soon became apparent that some of his most difficult work lay ahead of him. From that office Mitchell influenced and lobbied for key legislation that would put an end to the order of his day, Jim Crow.
While Mitchell worked in Washington on behalf of the NAACP, racial tensions began to rise in his own backyard and around the country. In 1948, a group of students challenged Baltimore City’s Board of Recreation and Parks by staging an interracial tennis match on the then segregated tennis courts of Druid Hill Park. Protests were held in 1950 when African Americans were restricted from the amenities at Fort Smallwood in Anne Arundel County. In 1954 another native son of Baltimore City argued before the United States Supreme Court that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. A year later, a 14-year-old African-American boy was lynched in Mississippi.
According to a report from the Washington Afro-American Newspaper months after the murder, Mitchell addressed a group in Connecticut at a civil rights conference and spoke openly against the violence and made no bones that legislation was the solution. “If Congress had passed civil rights bills the murderers of Emmitt Till would have been tried in a real court instead of a circus tent as was the case in Sumner, Miss. There would be the legal possibility of hitting the state of Mississippi where it hurts most – namely, the pocketbooks, by bringing suit against the county in which the outrage occurred,” said Mitchell, who went on to admonish both Republicans and Democrats for lack of action. “Civilized people recoil at the kind of harmony that links honest men and women elected to Congress by the ballots of free people with individuals from Mississippi and Georgia. ‘These’ hold office solely because potential voters are kept from the ballot box with shotguns, economic pressure and Nazi-like election regulations.”
Hilary Shelton, current director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and senior vice president for advocacy, has no doubt that without Mitchell the civil rights organization could not have pushed a national legislative agenda of that magnitude in what was a tumultuous period in America’s history. “Clarence Mitchell was on the battlefield everyday and his commitment was incredible. I’m one of his biggest fans and I am very honored to be sitting in this seat,” says Shelton of his predecessor. “He came to the NAACP with a journalistic background that helped to shape the organization’s strategy. He knew the importance of an effective communicator in a democracy and to the legislative process. We still use many of his same strategies today.”
His grandson, Maryland State Del. Keiffer Mitchell Jr. remembers Mitchell as a man that was never afraid to speak out against everyday injustices and held his family in the highest regard. “He inspired my interest in politics and public service. I remember going down to Washington with my uncle Parren and meeting people who were larger than life to me,” recalls the delegate. “He took his work very seriously and was diligent about his mission. So much so that one Saturday afternoon I was at my grandfather’s house and I picked up the phone and President Gerald Ford was on the other end because he would often work from home. He would sit at the typewriter sometimes typing a speech or testimony for Annapolis or Congress and would commute to Washington everyday, but he always had time for family.”
In his AFRO column “From the Workbench” Mitchell used the platform to call elected officials to task and lauded those on the right side of history. “Some elected officials seem to believe that a good record in the past gives them a right to betray their friends when there is a profitable opportunity to do so. This is a part of what is wrong in the present civil rights struggle in the U.S. Senate,” he wrote in a 1957 AFRO column. “In the cold light of the legislative morning after elections it is interesting to learn how few of those who made promises in November can remember what they said. Suddenly, many say they are amazed to learn that there are four parts of the civil rights bill and Part Three of the measure offers some real hope for correcting troubles in the South.”
Before the end of his career as an activist and lobbyist for the NAACP, Clarence Mitchell Jr. helped to effect change in the American landscape in unprecedented fashion. Under his watch, Congress passed the “1957 Civil Rights Act, the 1960 Civil Rights Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
“His work on the ’64 Civil Rights Act with public accommodations was tremendously important. But as a state legislator, for me it is the ’65 Voting Rights Act. working on that to ensure that African Americans not only had the right to vote, but could also now run for office and be part of the political process, not just by voting but being decision makers as well. You look at the Voting Rights Act as it relates to redistricting in terms of majority and minority districts it’s those types of things that are continuing forward,” Delegate Mitchell said. “A lot of people don’t know this, but back in the ‘30s my grandfather ran for the House of Delegates on a Socialist ticket. His specialty was the legislative process and getting people involved. It’s one thing to have demonstrations and marches, but the reality is that the work is done in the State House and the halls of Congress. That’s how you make change. I think that’s the biggest legacy that he left us.”