Juanita Jackson Mitchell and the Civil Rights Dynasty


Great freedom fighters are one-of-a-kind. The Jackson-Mitchells of Baltimore, too, were one of a kind, except that as a family they represented a civil rights dynasty whose overriding mission was to achieve revolutionary social change to end the abysmal oppression of their people under the Constitution.

Juanita Jackson Mitchell, in the mold of her mother Lillie May Jackson, was the surviving matriarch of the family. Her death on Tuesday ended an epic saga that lasted for two generations, during which she worked with her mother and with her husband, Clarence Mitchell, Jr. (he was director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, was celebrated for his lobbying skills in Congress as the "101st senator" and a "lion in the lobby") to end officially imposed segregation in Maryland and to combat that and all other forms of discrimination elsewhere in the nation.

The unflappable and forceful Lillie Jackson was the undisputed leader of the family clan in Maryland, serving as president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and president of the organization's state conference of branches. But Juanita held no candle in her mother's shadow; she was a very powerful leader in her own right, and Lillie Jackson exhorted her to remain so.

Mrs. Mitchell's involvement with the struggle began in 1931, when her mother and a group of other adults assisted her in founding the City-Wide Young People's Forum as a vehicle for raising the consciousness of Baltimore's somnolent black masses. During that period of the Great Depression, the forum also worked to find jobs for blacks.

A youth delegate in 1933 to a conference at Troutbeck, the New York estate of Joel E. Spingarn, president of the NAACP, where a comprehensive strategy was developed for the organization; special assistant from 1935 to 1938 to Walter White, NAACP executive secretary, a position that enabled her to establish a national reputation as a fire-brand youth organizer; and vice president of the National Council of Methodist Youth -- those roles helped to prepare her.

Consequently, by 1950, when Mrs. Mitchell received her law degree from the University of Maryland, she was a veteran of the struggle. That year, the NAACP was waging the final of its seven successive battles to desegregate the University of Maryland's professional schools. The NAACP had launched that struggle in 1935. Led by its special counsel, Charles Hamilton Houston, and his protege Thurgood Marshall, who was working with Lillie Jackson in the Baltimore branch, the NAACP got Judge Eugene O'Dunne of the Baltimore City Court, (now in the Clarence Mitchell, Jr., Courthouse), that year to order the University of Maryland School of Law to admit Donald Gaines Murray, a black Amherst College graduate.

Mr. Murray's admission should have opened up the entire institution to members of his race. But Maryland was a Jim Crow state, and its university remained true to that tradition and refused to do so.

Mrs. Mitchell cut her eyeteeth in the courts in another noteworthy battle that involved Maryland's beaches and municipal swimming pools. As had been the case when she and Clarence were growing up in Baltimore, their children could not use the Druid Hill Park playgrounds unless they went a mile inside to an isolated area, where a swimming pool with a big fence around it was located. Even as a child, she burned with anger as she watched the white children sunning themselves at the big, beautiful "white pool."

Now challenging those barriers in court, she discovered that the job was particularly difficult because many whites felt "there would be too much body contact, especially in swimming, so riots would result" if the two races were permitted to swim together.

Mrs. Mitchell nevertheless filed a lawsuit to desegregate the parks. She was helped by sympathetic white state employees who quietly wrote and alerted the NAACP that the state was secretly fixing up the south beach on the bay at Sandy Point State Park, which was for whites, while neglecting the east beach, which was best described as a mud hole. This, is course, was for the "coloreds."

While covering the story for the Afro-American, Milton "Buddy" Lonesome and other Afro-American reporters served as investigators and provided the NAACP with relevant information. The NAACP's lawsuits sought to desegregate the Fort Smallwood Municipal Park Beach and swimming pools in Baltimore.

Because other blacks were afraid to be identified with the struggle, Mr. Lonesome volunteered to be the plaintiff of record in one of the lawsuits. In 1955, three years after Mrs. Mitchell filed ZTC the suit in the U.S. District Court to desegregate the Sandy Point Beach, the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court ruling that segregation at the state facility was unconstitutional.

Mrs. Mitchell also won support from Tucker R. Dearing, another young black legend, and Linwood G. Koger, Jr., an attorney who like her was donating his services to the NAACP in desegregation battles. Thurgood Marshall and lafter Jack Greenberg, representing the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund assisted them. From 1960 onward, the NAACP Legal Defense, Fund worked with the Baltimore NAACP on more than 50 cases.

Other examples of the cases Mrs. Mitchell directed were:

* A 1953 lawsuit to desegregate the Mergenthaler Printing School and Western High School; those actions helped Baltimore to become the first southern city to integrate its public schools after the Supreme Court handed down its Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954.

* A case that grew out of the arrest students who were attempting to desegregation restaurants between 1960 and 1964.

* A case in which the NAACP asked the court to enjoin the commissioner of police in Baltimore from conducting mass searches of private homes without warrants; the case was won on appeal in the United States Court of Appeals in September 1966.

* A suit filed against the Harford County Board of Education on behalf of Dwight A. Pettit, to end segregation in the area schools.

* A case filed in 1960 in behalf of Dwight's father, George D. Pettit; this was historic because it led the United States Court of Claims to establish a national evidentiary test for employment discrimination cases.

As a result of those victories, she recalled, "The people began to think that the NAACP was God Almighty."

Her mother, of course, reinforced such views by maintaining that: "The NAACP is God's workshop. He doesn't want to us suffer discrimination, but he's a spirit and he's got to work through those of us who will give of ourselves and let him work through us."

Mrs. Mitchell relished every moment of the family's sacrifice to the struggle over the yeas. She was particularly proud of the involvement of her sons. She felt that that was "the most marvelous thing" about her children -- their dedication to public service.

"My husband and I had an almost total commitment to the struggle for freedom. We were gone all the time, either at rallies or for court cases. We would meet at church meetings to organize the people. We had a sense of urgency. Charlie Houston had helped give us that sense, that a whole lot of these things we were tolerating happened only because Negroes themselves were not asserting their constitutional rights. So Clarence and I had this commitment of urgency, and of giving our all to the struggle. The most beautiful thing about our sons was that they never protested our total commitment. They never argued about it. They never rebelled at it. They came in and joined us an comrades in arms and helped us do it."

The children, of course, saw much less of their father, who worked in Washington, than of their mother. Among other things, Clarence Mitchell III remembered well those week nights from 1946 to 1950 when his father bundled him and his brother Keiffer into the car to take Mrs. Mitchell to her law classes at the University of Maryland. So determined was she to complete her studies without interruption that in November 1946 she stopped attending only for two weeks, long enough to give birth to Michael. She then returned and took her final exams, which she passed.

It was by such examples that Clarence and Juanita Mitchell sought to instill in their children and their generation the values of leadership, dedication and citizenship that Lillie Jackson had epitomized.

Denton Watson, a former editorial writer for The Sun, is the author of "Lion in the Lobby: Clarence Mitchell, Jr.'s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad