Crusader for justice

Parren J. Mitchell, the first African-American elected to Congress from Maryland and a lifelong crusader for social justice for the nation's minorities, died yesterday of complications from pneumonia at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

He was 85 and had lived in a nursing home since a series of strokes several years ago.


A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and later its chairman, Mr. Mitchell was the younger brother of Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., Washington lobbyist for the NAACP in the hard-won civil rights struggles in Congress of the 1960s and 1970s.

He and other members of the family, including his brother and sister-in-law, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the longtime matriarch of Baltimore's civil rights movement, played important roles in social causes and held city and state offices.


"The Mitchell family is to social justice what the Rockefellers are to money," the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said when Clarence Mitchell died in 1984.

Parren Mitchell was elected in 1970 to the first of his eight terms in Congress from the 7th District, after holding posts in the administrations of Baltimore Mayors Theodore R. McKeldin and Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, and Gov. J. Millard Tawes.

In his 16 years representing his Baltimore district, he tried to ensure that black-owned businesses got their share of tax money spent on public works projects and called attention to what he considered instances of prejudice, such as alleged job bias on the Baltimore waterfront and promotion practices at Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn.

In the 1970s, he fought for legislation requiring local jurisdictions to set aside 10 percent of federal grants to hire minority contractors. In 1982, he attached a similar amendment to a multimillion-dollar highway bill.

It was part of a strategy he later characterized as the second phase of the civil rights movement, economic empowerment.

An avowed liberal, he was one of the first to advocate impeaching President Richard M. Nixon.

In the 1980s, he was an uncompromising opponent of the "supply side" economics promoted by President Ronald Reagan, calling such strategies "fiscal savagery against the poor."

"I am absolutely devastated," said Kweisi Mfume, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It is the same feeling I got when I learned my father died. He was like a second father to me. He sort of saved my life."


Mr. Mfume was 19 when he met Mr. Mitchell amid the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Mitchell offered him advice that day that he has used to inspire scores of youths who are cynical about their future, Mr. Mfume said.

"I was there, at the corner of Robert and Division streets, in the midst of the burnings and the riots," he said. "And he told me, 'It's not how you start in life that counts. It's how you finish. I don't care where you think you are or where you're not. It's how you shape your life from here that matters.'"

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. called his uncle "a trailblazer. Every African-American elected official and every African-American minority business owes a tremendous debt to him."

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said, "When I think about Congressman Mitchell, I think about how he has contributed to the African-American community and planted the seeds for many to go into public life."

She said he inspired those who succeeded him in the 7th District seat, Mr. Mfume and Elijah E. Cummings, the incumbent.

Mr. Mitchell was "extremely strong," she said, when it came to confronting discrimination, especially in the area of small business.


"African-American minority business owes a tremendous debt to him," the mayor said.

Mr. Mitchell was born in Baltimore on April 29, 1922, the son of Clarence M. Mitchell Sr. and Elsie Davis Mitchell. His father was a waiter at the Rennert Hotel in downtown Baltimore.

In 1933, when Parren was 11 years old, brother Clarence returned home from Somerset County, where a black man had been lynched.

His brother, then a reporter for the Baltimore Afro American newspaper, was so shaken by the horror he had seen that he could not eat his dinner. Parren, listening with his similarly shocked siblings, "vowed on the spot to dedicate his life to the advancement of his fellow Negroes," Bradford M. Jacobs, a former Evening Sun editorial page editor, wrote in a 1965 profile of the family.

Aggressive, persistent and, in the view of critics, sometimes abrasive, Parren Mitchell never departed from that objective.

He graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1940 and served in the Army during World War II, winning a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in Italy.


He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1950 from what is now Morgan State University and applied for admission to the graduate program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The college's president turned him down, saying it was "inadvisable" for blacks to attend College Park. Instead, a separate graduate program for off-campus study was established for him in Baltimore.

Mr. Mitchell sued and prevailed, becoming the first black person to enroll in graduate classes at College Park.

He first came to widespread public notice in 1965 when, after a stint as head of the state's Interracial Commission in the Tawes administration, he was selected by Mayor McKeldin as executive director of the Baltimore Community Action Agency, the local arm of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.

As chief of the city anti-poverty agency, Mr. Mitchell became a troubleshooter on racial problems, a mediator between civil rights groups and the municipal government, and the city's negotiator with the anti-poverty effort in Washington, where he gained a reputation as one of the most effective anti-poverty administrators in the nation.

Mr. Mitchell remained through the early months of the D'Alesandro administration and played a key mediation role during one of the most searing episodes in 20th-century Baltimore history, the rioting that followed the assassination of Dr. King in April 1968.


The Sun reported that Mr. Mitchell "was the only apparent link between the militant civil rights groups and the city administration" during three days and four nights of violence that was quelled after thousands of Army and National Guard troops were sent into the city.

Mr. Mitchell resigned in July 1968, complaining that the mayor had assigned him a subordinate role in the anti-poverty effort, a step that Mr. D'Alesandro blamed on federal government dictates.

He joined the Morgan State faculty and made his first run for Congress, a bid to unseat Samuel N. Friedel, who had represented the heavily Jewish and Democratic 7th District since 1953. In the 1968 Democratic primary, Mr. Mitchell got 15,000 votes, falling 5,500 short of Mr. Friedel. But political experts were impressed.

Two years later, he defeated Mr. Friedel by 38 votes in the 40 percent black district as a third major candidate, a Jewish state senator, drained away votes from the popular incumbent.

Opposition to the Vietnam War was growing at the time, and African-Americans were becoming increasingly militant in seeking equal economic opportunity. The nation was still recovering from the assassinations two months apart of Dr. King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Mr. Mitchell hit Capitol Hill at full throttle, ignoring the tradition that freshmen should be seen and not heard.


Days after his inauguration, he and the other 12 black members of the House boycotted Mr. Nixon's State of the Union address. Two months later, the newly established Congressional Black Caucus met with the president.

Late in his congressional career, Mr. Mitchell was grazed by - but not implicated in - a wide-ranging scandal involving Wedtech Corp., a Bronx, N.Y.-based defense contractor, that led to the federal convictions of more than a dozen defendants, including two of his nephews and a member of Congress.

The nephews, Clarence M. Mitchell III and his brother, Michael B. Mitchell, were convicted in federal court in 1987 of accepting $50,000 from Wedtech to obstruct an investigation of the company by the House Small Business Committee, which Representative Mitchell headed. Each was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.

There was no evidence that the brothers did anything to block an investigation or that they contacted their uncle about it. A prosecutor called the congressman an "unwitting victim."

Mr. Mitchell stood by his nephews, testifying as a defense witness at their trial.

In 1985, at age 63, Mr. Mitchell announced after much speculation about his plans that he would not seek re-election for a ninth term in Congress.


But retirement from the House did not mean retirement from public life.

Eight months later, Mr. Mitchell joined the ticket of gubernatorial candidate Stephen H. Sachs as a candidate for lieutenant governor. Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer handily defeated Mr. Sachs in the primary.

At his death, Mr. Mitchell had a lawsuit pending against The Sun alleging trespass and invasion of privacy stemming from reporting by the newspaper on the handling of his assets by a nephew who had power of attorney for the former congressman.

Out of public office and before his health waned, Mr. Mitchell remained engaged in the fight for civil rights.

"If you believe in fighting racism, you make a commitment for the rest of your life," he said in a 1989 speech to the Baltimore teachers union observing Dr. King's birthday.

"There's no getting off that train. You can't say I've put five years in fighting racism and now I'm finished. No, you are not finished. Our job is to fight it every day, to continue to shove it down and when it rises up to shove it down even harder."