Clarence M. Mitchell III, who helped steer a sweeping desegregation measure through the General Assembly, died Thursday of cancer at Seasons Hospice at the Northwest Hospital Center. He was 72.
Mr. Mitchell became the nation's youngest black legislator when he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates at age 22. He served as a delegate from 1963 to 1967, when he was elected to the Maryland Senate, serving until 1986. He also contended in city elections during the civil rights era of the 1960s.
A year after leaving the Senate, Mr. Mitchell was convicted of trying to obstruct a grand jury, wire fraud and trying to tamper with a federal investigation. He served 18 months of a 41/2-year federal prison sentence.
He was named for his father, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the civil rights leader and longtime lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The courthouse on the west side of Calvert Street bears the elder Mitchell's name.
"I just loved Clarence Mitchell," said former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a colleague and friend who lives in Bolton Hill. "You might get angry at him, but you couldn't stay angry for long."
Mr. Lapides recalled that he and Mr. Mitchell entered the House of Delegates in the same year. "Our careers were parallel," Mr. Lapides said.
"When we first went into the Senate in 1967, there were no microphones. Clarence was one of the most eloquent speakers on the Senate floor and he was smart as he could be. If he were ever running late, he could be on his feet about an issue that affected him and give the most impassioned and eloquent response," said Mr. Lapides, praising him as "one of the best extemporaneous speakers" he ever knew.
Clarence Mitchell III's nephew, Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, said one of his uncle's greatest accomplishments was helping establish equal rights in Maryland. He helped shape the state's public accommodations law in 1963 that required restaurants and hotels to serve all customers. When the law passed, it only applied to half of Maryland's counties.
"He led a rich life through public service," Keiffer Mitchell said. "To me, he was Uncle Clarence. He was a very gregarious, fun uncle. … He had a quick wit all the way up to his last moments."
Keiffer Mitchell said his uncle told him last week to celebrate his life, not mourn his death.
"He told me, 'I don't want any crying.' He said, 'I want you to have a party and celebrate my life,'" Keiffer Mitchell recalled. "He said he would be celebrating up in heaven."
Keiffer Mitchell said that when Mr. Mitchell was elected he could not join white legislators at dinner or stay in Annapolis hotels. Instead, he stayed at his grandparents' summer house at Arundel on the Bay.
From the floor of the State House in 1963, Mr. Mitchell said the public accommodations law was only a start.
"This by no means satisfies us," he said. "The rights of human beings should be given immediately, and not parceled out.
"If you segregate me because I am dirty, I can wash. If you segregate me because I have no education, I can get educated. If you segregate me, however, because of my color, I can do nothing about this. I cannot wash off my color."
Kweisi Mfume, who in 1986 beat Mr. Mitchell in the Democratic primary for the 7th Congressional district, said they shared a "mutual respect" nonetheless. Mr. Mfume went on to win the general election for the seat, which he held for five terms, succeeding Parren J. Mitchell, who was Mr. Mitchell's uncle but also Mr. Mfume's political mentor.
"Political development in West Baltimore would not have taken place at the pace it did without the influence and persona of Clarence Mitchell," said Mr. Mfume, the former head of the NAACP.
Mr. Mfume said his church, New Shiloh Baptist, was visited about a week ago by Mr. Mitchell's brother, Michael, who asked the congregation to pray for his sibling as his health deteriorated.
"I will miss his individuality, his resourcefulness, his distinctive character," Mr. Mfume said. "He was a political gladiator who overwhelmed his opponents and electrified his supporters."