Remembering Civil Rights Leader Parren Mitchell (2/2)

Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: And I can see him, envision him battling, because one of the things that I read about–in fact, I was probably actually active and involved in the community at the time was at the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Governor Spiro Agnew called Parren Mitchell in and called other community leaders in and started to berate them about not controlling the population. And, apparently, he got up and led a walkout. And then, a couple of years later, I see that the president then, Richard Nixon, refused to meet with the black congressional–

LISA MITCHELL SENNAAR, ADVISOR, LILLIE MAY CARROLL JACKSON MUSEUM: Caucus.

CONWAY: –Caucus, and him and the rest of the caucus actually boycotted Nixon’s state of the union. And so there was some anger and some fight there. But did his anger ever show?

MITCHELL SENNAAR: And I would say righteous indignation.

CONWAY: Okay.

MITCHELL SENNAAR: As child–and it’s important to know we are a sum of our whole life. Parren Mitchell grew up–they were poor. The Mitchells were poor. They used to call them “those alley Mitchells”–oh, they’ll never amount to anything. And my grandmother and my grandfather, Clarence and Elsie Davis Mitchell, had a number of children, but they were uneducated people. It was difficult for African Americans to make a living at that time. And they had seven children. And the homes that they lived in, it was rough. It was rough. I mean, grandma would sew potato sacks for sheets on the beds. They studied by candlelight. That’s how Parren grew up. But he grew up around a lot of love.

And education was key. He saw his older siblings–. My grandmother said she wanted all of her children to be able to go to college if that’s what they wanted to do. Her goal was for all of them to go. And most of them did. And so Parren understood that a way had been paved for him, that his parents worked hard, his older siblings worked hard to make sure he would have an opportunity to advance himself. And you didn’t just get this education for yourself; you got your education to uplift. And that was something that was put in him through the church, through his family, through example, through seeing his siblings and seeing others in the community who were respected because they didn’t leave the community. They knew that there was–it was who we are. It was ours. And in order for it to be a better community, we had to fight for it.

So people said Parren was angry. I even saw an award on his wall, “One of God’s angry men”. But I would say righteous indignation. And Parren was passionate about people. Well, when people ask, why didn’t Parren ever marry and have a family, he said, who would put up with me? Who could put up with a schedule? I get up at 5:00, 5:30 in the morning, I read my newspapers, I go commute to Washington–because he never lived in Washington; he drove over every day. He said, when I finish the day around 7:00 or 8:00, I come back to community meetings. I got home around 10:00 or 11:00, tried to unwind a little bit. And I started all over the next day. What kind of a family person could I be with a schedule like that? And he did that for–.

CONWAY: About 17, 18 years.

MITCHELL SENNAAR: About 17, 18 years. But that’s just formal elected politics. That’s not his participation in the community before as a professor, as an organizer, and all those things. So, yeah. He committed his life to the struggle for freedom for people, for African-American people in particular. But he was principled enough to look at it from a world stage and from a global perspective.

CONWAY: But I recall seeing–and I think you’ve shared with me yourself, like, several pictures of him, like, interacting with the family. It seemed like he was–tell us about him personally as a family member. How do you remember him?

MITCHELL SENNAAR: As a loving elder in the family. But it just as–he always–he was always youthful, always full of energy, charismatic inasmuch as he had enough energy to share with everybody. A huge heart. He came to all of our graduations. Anything you invited Uncle Parren to, he came. And, I mean, we have a huge family. All the cousins, aunts, uncles, anything that was there, Uncle Parren was there. If I invited him to come speak at my elementary school, my high school, my college, any event, anything, he was there. In addition to hosting, he had one big dinner for the family every year because my grandparents had Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. Parren had his day, and he’d have the whole family over, might have it catered just to have as a family day and a time for gathering because of how important family was to him.

And I have to say also extended family, because there are very few places I can go that I don’t mention his name and I can’t find some young person who–well, it’s all relative now; I’d say 60 and under–who he mentored, either brought into his office, helped to get scholarship assistance. He just found time to share with young people because he realized that’s our future. That’s his legacy, I think, more than anything else is that he cared so much about people. In particular, he realized that if you help the young, you’re training up a nation, you’re training up the future. And he was never too tired. And I never heard him say no.

CONWAY: Yeah. And I think I shared with you previously that I met him while I was in prison early on, ’72, ’73. He would come to the penitentiary to help the prisoners actually organize. We were organizing a labor union. And we didn’t have any protection from the administration officials and whatnot. And he would come as a member of our board to allow us that space and that freedom to organize, to change our conditions in a realistic kind of way. And he gave a lot of time and a lot of energy, even though he was going back and forth to Congress at the time. So, I mean, that’s the kind of heart I remember that he had about just strangers–not just strangers, but strangers in prison.

MITCHELL SENNAAR: Well, you’re talking about a human rights person. And that’s why when I hear people reduce his contributions and others’ to civil rights–civil’s a part of it, but it was still the struggle for human rights. And he articulated it sometimes. And so did some of the others. But he understood that this is about our humanity. And he was a man. He was comfortable in his own skin. And that’s something he carried with him and he projected and he understood that everyone who’s successful has had help. And he knew that many of the people who were in the penitentiary didn’t belong there, that our community, just as this–as that he had been targeted throughout his political life by the /ˈpɒməloʊ/ police administration–when we talk about police brutality now, this is not new. This is not new at all. And whether you are a Congressman–his home was broken into when he was a member of Congress. People said they were responding to a 911 call. No one called for assistance. But there was that level of harassment that, as a member of Congress, if he wasn’t safe in his home, how could he look down on young brothers and sisters who ended up in a system that existed because our lives, our very existence was criminalized? And he read up. He paid attention. And so he knew that there were people like you who didn’t belong there. The same way that he organized and he supported your organizing, he supported the workers at Social Security Administration when the black workers tried to organize and they were threatened. Again, it’s human rights: wherever human beings are, you have a right to be treated as a human being. And that’s your right when you come to this earth.

CONWAY: Okay. One final question. Toward the end of his life, I understand he was put in a nursing home, and there had been some controversy about his financial status, family members. And I think a suit was filed against the Sun paper. You want to comment on that?

MITCHELL SENNAAR: Yep. Uncle Parren, first of all, his privacy was violated, because in the homes–he was in an assisted living facility because he could no longer manage for himself. And one of the things the Mitchells–many of them were very independent–my grandfather was; Uncle George, his other older brother, very independent; and wanted to kind of have their own space, didn’t want to live in someone’s home, ’cause Parren could have lived with one of us, his godson, Uncle Mike, he could have lived with him, but he wanted his own space. And a lot of people would come to visit Parren, I mean, day and night during the visiting hours, because he had touched so many people.

In terms of his finances, part of his money went to MBELDEF. He continued to give–about half of his salary in retirement went to MBELDEF. And because he was staying in an institution that was full-time care–they’re expensive places. And you can get to run up a bill here and there. But the allegations that were made and the interview that was conducted against Parren without permission from Parren–Sun reporters came in, lied about who they were, gained entrance and access to an elder. That’s a violation. And because of that, the family sued, because they shouldn’t have been able to get in and harass him at that. I mean, here’s a guy who spent his life on behalf of the public. And the Sun paper was never a friend of Parren, has never been a friend of our community. There have been individuals who have been principled, but I consider it a rag newspaper. I mean, they endorsed some communists once when they wouldn’t endorse Parren when he was running for Congress. And just hands-down, when you look at who represented the community, who had the community’s interest, it was always Parren Mitchell. And so, for them to not endorse him, it was clear that there was never a like on the part of those, the powers that be, with someone like Congressman Parren Mitchell. And so it was an attack. It was something that was not true. And it was not their business to determine how he spent his money, what his bills were. You don’t see people of note in the Caucasian community have folks go through their finances as a retired member of Congress. It’s unseemly. And that’s why their paper is in the state that it’s in now.

CONWAY: Okay. Well, I’m going to have the final comment, because just earlier today I had in my office a person that actually worked at that facility, and she said the outpouring of goodwill and good wishes and flowers and cards and balloons and just people trying to get there to see him was tremendous. And, I mean, I just happened to just mentioned to her that I was interviewing you today, and she said, oh, I worked there, and it was just people just all over remembered him and honored him and respected him. So I think that is part of his legacy.

MITCHELL SENNAAR: It is.

CONWAY: And so thanks for coming and sharing.

And thank you for joining The Real News.

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