June 07, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 43
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Parren Mitchell eulogized as
‘champion of justice and equality’

Ben Nuckols

BALTIMORE — Parren J. Mitchell never married, and he had no children. Yet the trailblazing congressman left behind two sprawling extended families — the dozens of blood relatives who called him “Uncle Parren” and the network of political leaders who carried on his legacy.

Both families — the relatives on the right side of the aisle, the politicians on the left — packed the cavernous nave of St. James’ Episcopal Church in west Baltimore Tuesday to remember Maryland’s first black congressman, who died May 28 at age 85.

“With the passing of Parren Mitchell, our nation has lost one of its most passionate champions of justice and equality,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Pelosi noted that when Mitchell was elected in 1970 to represent Maryland’s 7th District, he had a mandate to “fight against a war that was wrong and injustice in Washington, D.C. Sound familiar?” she asked, drawing laughter.

Few tears were shed during the funeral mass for Mitchell, whose health had been declining for years. But the service, which lasted nearly four hours, was filled with rousing tributes to Mitchell’s advocacy for the economically disadvantaged.

The roll call of speakers included Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin; Gov. Martin O’Malley; Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich; Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon; and former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, who took over Mitchell’s seat in 1987.

Most mentioned Mitchell’s work on behalf of minority businesses. He fought for legislation requiring local governments to set aside 10 percent of federal grants to hire minority contractors, and he chaired the House Small Business Committee. Such advocacy was part of what he called the second phase of the civil rights movement — economic empowerment.

“He wanted people in the minority community not just to get jobs, but to create jobs,” Pelosi said.

Mitchell was part of a family dubbed the “black Kennedys” for their prominence in politics and civil rights. Parren Mitchell’s brother, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., helped shepherd the major civil rights legislation of the late 1950s and 1960s as the NAACP’s principal lobbyist, and was known as “the 101st Senator.” Clarence Mitchell’s wife, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, was the longtime head and legal counsel of the Maryland NAACP.

Born in 1922, Parren Mitchell was wounded in Italy during World War II and won a Purple Heart. After the war, he graduated from Morgan State College (now Morgan State University) and, after a successful lawsuit, became the first black student to enroll in graduate courses at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he earned a master’s degree.

He worked in the administrations of two Baltimore mayors — including Pelosi’s brother, Thomas D’Alesandro III. He ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 1968, then tried again in 1970 and narrowly defeated Samuel N. Friedel in a hard-fought Democratic primary.

“Whenever people tell me their votes don’t count, I tell them Parren Mitchell got elected by 38 votes,” former Sen. Paul Sarbanes said.

Known as a fiery orator, Parren Mitchell had a softer side in private. Clarence Mitchell Jr.’s work in Washington often kept him away from his family, and Parren Mitchell became a surrogate father to many of his nieces and nephews, said one of them, former state senator Clarence M. Mitchell III.

“My fondest memory is him teaching me how to drive,” Clarence Mitchell III said. “When my father couldn’t be there, Parren was here for us.”

That generosity extended to the next generation of Mitchells. Baltimore City Councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who wore a vintage button from his great-uncle’s 1970 campaign, recalled phoning the congressman a half-dozen times one evening when he was in elementary school. Keiffer Mitchell was struggling to complete an oral report on the three branches of government.

The next day, Parren Mitchell showed up in Keiffer Mitchell’s class.

“Not only did he give my oral report, he invited the entire class to Capitol Hill the following week,” Keiffer Mitchell said. “Needless to say, I got an A.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, who has represented the 7th District since 1996, delivered a fiery eulogy, praising Mitchell as a mentor and a friend who guided and inspired him throughout his career.

“Parren did something for a lot of African American young boys and girls,” Cummings said. “He showed us how to dream big. … We can dream big, and we can do what we deem to be the impossible.”

Cummings noted that Mitchell provided his own epitaph — the rhyming verse, attributed to Benjamin Mays, that he used to end his speeches.

“I only have a minute — 60 seconds in it,” Mitchell would say. “Forced upon me I did not choose it, but I know that I must use it. Suffer if I lose it, give account if I abuse it. Only a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.”
(Associated Press)

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