Remembering Civil Rights Leader Parren Mitchell (1/2)
Lisa Mitchell discusses the legacy of her uncle Parren Mitchell, who was the first black congressperson from the south since reconstruction, an opponent of the Vietnam War, and a champion for black causes
EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to the real news. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.
Sometimes referred to as the black Kennedys, the Baltimore-based Mitchell family was a preeminent force in 20th-century American politics. Clarence Mitchell Jr. served as the NAACP chief Washington lobbyist in the 1950s and ’60s, helping pass landmark civil rights laws. Juanita Jackson Mitchell, who married Clarence, was the first black woman to practice law in Maryland.
Today, in honor of Black History Month, we look at the legacy of Congressman Parren Mitchell, Clarence Mitchell’s younger brother, who in 1970 became the first African American elected to Congress in a Southern state since 1898.
Joining us here in Baltimore to discuss Parren Mitchell’s life is Lisa Mitchell Sennaar, an adviser to the Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson civil rights museum and former host of the Lisa Mitchell show on Radio One.
Join me, please, in welcoming Lisa Mitchell Sennaar.
LISA MITCHELL SENNAAR, ADVISOR, LILLIE MAY CARROLL JACKSON MUSEUM: Thank you very much.
CONWAY: Okay. Lisa, tell us a little bit about your uncle, Parren Mitchell.
MITCHELL SENNAAR: Parren was my grandfather’s younger brother. And my earliest remembrances of Uncle Parren were: always working, always pulling people in. He cared about people fiercely. He loved black people in particular, because, as he said, we needed more. And having grown up in a segregated Baltimore, in a mean environment, he knew what it was like to be disenfranchised. And so he made it his life’s work to do something about it.
CONWAY: Well, how did he get involved in politics?
MITCHELL SENNAAR: As a little boy, Parren tells the story that the family always gathered for dinner. And no matter how late they got in–they were eight siblings, I think seven survived, and Parren was next to the youngest. And Gram would always, their mother would always say, well, no matter how late folks get in, we’re waiting dinner for the family. And my grandfather got in, his older brother, got in later that evening. And when he got in, he sat down at the table, and before he could even begin to eat, he ran from the table and regurgitated–he threw up.
And Uncle Parren didn’t know, as a little boy, what had upset his brother so. And when he found out–what had upset him was he had covered the lynching of George Armwood. This was in 1933. It was the last lynching, documented lynching in Maryland. And Grandpa, Clarence Mitchell III–as Clarence Mitchell Jr., my dad, was the third–Clarence Mitchell Jr. covered it as an Afro reporter. And he had come back from seeing this young man–who was not guilty of a crime, by the way–the body was still burning, still simmering when he got there. They had lynched him, they had burned him and taken parts of his body as souvenirs. And along with one of the Afro reporters, Paul Henderson, they took pictures. And this was an Afro story and a series of articles.
And when my grandpop explained it to Uncle Parren, he said, well, then I’m going to do something about that, ’cause they hurt my brother. And he started, at that young age, going with his older brother to walk picket lines at Ford’s Theater as young man, and other places, to open up Baltimore.
CONWAY: Okay. How did he come to run for Congress?
MITCHELL SENNAAR: Uncle Parren, Congressman Mitchell (I’ll say Uncle Parren), was always involved. He was a veteran who got two purple hearts but didn’t–I’m saying that to give you a context. He didn’t like war, participated because that was his duty, and he was a dutiful person. He was a rules person. He worked around structure; whether it was the family structure, the church structure, he did that. And very active in the community when he came back. Was an early–one of the plaintiffs to open up the University of Maryland graduate schools. They had to sue the University of Maryland for him to gain admission to the School of Social Work. He’d gotten his undergraduate degree from Morgan, couldn’t get into the University of Maryland. And so that was an early entrance into not just civil rights but citizenship in the state of Maryland.
Now, the University of Maryland had been sued in 1935 by Donald Gaines Murray to open up the law school. Little did the lawyers know that, yes, they got into the law school, but they would have to sue every individual college, every individual school–the nursing school, the med school–to gain entrance for African Americans in the state of Maryland. And Parren was the plaintiff for the School of Social Work, got into that, and started becoming involved in the community.
He also was a member of a group–I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them–called the Goon Squad. And the Goon Squad was this group of men–ministers and activists–Reverend Vernon Dobson you might know; Reverend Bascom, who’s gone on; Homer Favor. There were a number of these members, and a few women as well. I think Mrs. Murphy from The Afro, one of the Mrs. Murphys–Madeline, I think it was, Murphy–they would go into the community and disrupt if stuff–how can I explain this? They were men of principle. And when they saw that things weren’t functioning in a principled way, they would disrupt. If it was a city council meeting, if it was where they could go and be heard, because we weren’t being heard. African Americans, blacks were not being heard.
And there was a push for Parren to run. He had the experience. He had been on the–what was it?–the interracial–Commission on Human Relations for the state of Maryland. So he had an opportunity to see firsthand just the discrimination in the state of Maryland in Baltimore City on an institutional level. And I think–and he was urged to run. The first time that he ran, he ran against the Pollack machine, and he lost by several hundred votes.
CONWAY: That was what? Sixty-eight?
MITCHELL SENNAAR: That would’ve been ’68, ’69. And for Congress it’s every two years, for the House of Representatives. So the next time he ran, he won by 38 votes. And that was a real community effort. I mean, you talk about a coalition. It was not just the Goon Squad. It was our families, but my dad’s political machine, who was Senator Clarence Mitchell III, who was then a legislator in the state of Maryland, and we used that apparatus. They used the NAACP. The same grassroots groups that had gotten my dad elected fanned out and helped in the effort to get Parren elected.
CONWAY: Okay. Okay. Well, and the first thing or one of the first things he did what he he joined Congress was apparently he went on a tour with some other representatives around the country protesting the Vietnam War. And then they actually collectively filed a lawsuit. Why was–he was a military man. Why was he so opposed to the Vietnam War?
MITCHELL SENNAAR: So, when you say military man, he was drafted. I mean, you’re talking about–one thing from Uncle Parren’s own mouth: he said war didn’t solve the problems. And he understood that after having received two purple hearts. He tried to give one back. I think he gave one of the back and said, when he was in Congress, that he never voted to fund war, to fund–he wouldn’t vote on those, the defense spending for war. He said, our community perhaps wasn’t ready for him to be a pacifist, he said, but he was moving in that direction because war wasn’t solving any of the problems. It was death, it was destruction. And our community, African Americans, were disproportionately represented on the front lines. And so you’re sending young people in to die, and it’s not solve anything. It’s unprincipled, he felt. It’s not–and he was definitely a religious person and a man of God. And it didn’t sit well. It wasn’t–he couldn’t–his conscience wouldn’t allow him to be quiet about that when he knew it was not–first of all, Vietnam was not even a war we were supposed to be in. There was no good reason to be there. And he was bold enough and honest enough to speak up about it.
CONWAY: Okay. Well, what do you think was his proudest achievement?
MITCHELL SENNAAR: I think one of his proudest achievements would have been–set aside legislation. There was–and this is what is so inspiring about Uncle Parren, about Congressman Parren Mitchell, is that thinking your way through things.
One of the things that he and others realized when they started, really founded the Congressional Black Caucus, was that some of the gains that were made in opening up in civil rights legislation and opening up the government and public facilities to African-Americans without money, without a financial infrastructure, without the economic peace, our community was not going to be able to live up to the American dream or really participate in America fully.
And one of the things that Parren realized was–in looking at legislation, is how much money was being spent by government contractors. And what he realized was that he attached bill, an amendment, onto one of the largest government contracting pieces of legislation that called for 10 percent set aside for African-American businesses, that if you want to do business with the federal government for contracting, African-Americans would have to participate in order for you to get the contract. Well, that’s huge. But that’s a detail. People were not even thinking about that. You’re talking about billions, hundreds of billions of dollars. And to be able to get a part that money, when you look at Prince George’s County, the suburb of Washington, D.C., that enclave that a number of businesses were able to start because of that legislation and another–.
CONWAY: So let me just–,
MITCHELL SENNAAR: Yes. Sure.
CONWAY: –’cause I know that was, like, a $4 billion bill that he attached had to.
MITCHELL SENNAAR: Oh, yes. Yes.
CONWAY: But that became law and it affected every other appropriation bill after that.
MITCHELL SENNAAR: Yes.
MITCHELL SENNAAR: And then there was the effort to protect it. He founded an organization called MBELDEF, the Minority Business Education Legal Defense–the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund, the MBELDEF. And you can look them up on the internet. They’re still in existence. What he said was that the United States has the office of the attorney general–I’m trying to think of what–not the State Department. What’s the arm of the government that–. Oh gosh. The Civil Rights Division is in the Office of the Attorney General. I’m trying to think of what–. I’m drawing a blank here.
CONWAY: Would that be the Justice Department?
MITCHELL SENNAAR: Thank you. The Justice Department. Long day. What Parren said was that somebody had to come up with the Justice Department. We needed our own Justice Department to protect black businesses. And if we weren’t going to be able to just get the money, we wouldn’t be able to just get the contracts. At some point there was going to be pushback. And there was. And so he founded MBELDEF, the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund. It’s a mouthful. But Anthony Robinson, he asked to be the first director. And Mr. Robinson is still there. He’s an attorney. And they go in court to fight to protect the right of African-American businesses to participate in business with United States government. And it has been an uphill battle all the way.
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