Tributes pouring in for Mitchell

The Baltimore Sun

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who grew up in Little Italy, said, "The Mitchell family was revered in my home."

With the death of Parren J. Mitchell, the first African-American elected to Congress from Maryland, Pelosi said, "Baltimore has lost one of its favorite sons."

Mitchell, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, died Monday at age 85 of complications from pneumonia.

The Mitchell family will receive visitors from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday at the St. James Parish Center, 1020 W. Lafayette Ave., where photos and memorabilia from Mitchell's life and career will be on display.

A memorial service will be held Tuesday from noon to 2 p.m. at St. James Episcopal Church, 1020 West Lafayette Ave.

As news of Mitchell's death spread, Pelosi and other friends and admirers offered their recollections of the man who used his sharp, silver tongue to wage war against racial discrimination and to serve as the voice for the voiceless.

During his eight terms in Congress, the slight, bespectacled, soft-spoken man fought successfully for minority set-asides on federal contracts; vigorously opposed the "supply-side" and "trickle-down" economics of the Reagan administration of the 1980s and promoted minority ownership as head of the House Small Business Committee.

Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, called Mitchell the "father of minority-business set-asides at the federal level" and a "seminal figure" in advocating for black businesses.

"Parren Mitchell saw the need for this, understood it and figured out a public policy approach for dealing with," Morial said.

Kurt L. Schmoke, the dean of the Howard University School of Law, who served three terms as Baltimore's mayor, said, "There's a phrase that I think really captures his views."

"He tried to convey to people that civil rights was also silver rights - that building businesses, employing people and creating economic development opportunities were real challenges," said Schmoke.

"The one thing that's pretty clear about his political career is he was genuinely a national leader," Schmoke added. "He was the leading light on black economic development for a couple of decades."

Former U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who entered the House with Mitchell in 1970, recalled Mitchell as "immensely effective in the Congress.

"On the one hand, he was a very strong and forceful advocate," Sarbanes said. "He combined that with an ability to talk to people on the other side. No one could dismiss or ignore Parren, that was for sure."

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said Mitchell was a "tremendous leader, not just for African-Americans but for all people having difficulty because of discrimination or prejudice.

"He was perceived as a real firebrand, and a fighter. But he was always willing to sit down and say 'How do we solve problems?'" Hoyer recalled.

Mitchell graduated from Frederick Douglass High School and what is now Morgan State University, and earned a masters degree in sociology from the University of Maryland. He was a member of a prominent Baltimore family that played key roles in the national and local civil rights battle. In 1970, Mitchell was elected to the House of Representatives after heading the city's anti-poverty agency.

Mitchell said he believed that the anti-poverty agency's policies should be aimed at helping to rebuild black family units that had been weakened by generations of poverty. "Slavery," he once said, had "prevented Negro families from forming, and for the century since then, the tradition hung on."

Mitchell's first attempt to secure a congressional seat fell short when he failed to unseat Samuel N. Friedel in the 1968 Democratic primary. But two years later, he bested Friedel by 38 votes.

"I always used that election in subsequent years when I would speak to groups about political participation and involvement," Sarbanes said. "People would say, 'What difference does my vote make?' This is one instance where a few votes made a great deal of difference."

During his first months in Congress, Mitchell accused the House leadership of racial discrimination in the staffing of committees, took up the cause of an Army lieutenant who had proclaimed himself a conscientious objector several years after graduating from West Point, instigated a congressional investigation into politically connected Baltimore savings and loans that had been accused of financing housing speculators who were suspected of bilking the poor, and called for diplomatic recognition of China.

Mitchell also drew notice for boycotting with 12 other black members President Richard M. Nixon's State of the Union address and later for being one of the first congressmen to call for Nixon's impeachment.

But he is also remembered for his role as a founding member and later chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and as an advocate for African-American economic empowerment.

Mitchell's older brother, the late Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., was the NAACP's Washington lobbyist when Congress passed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The civil rights background of the Mitchell family enabled Parren Mitchell to bring "instant respect" to the newly created Congressional Black Caucus, said Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, another founding member.

"While Parren had a sense of humor, there was no question that he was a no-nonsense guy who enjoyed a credibility long before he came to the Congress," Rangel said. "And it just merely allowed all of us to bask in the great umbrella of credibility that he created for all of us. ... He was a Mitchell. And therefore, as his brother was considered the 101st senator, Parren could come there as the 436th congressman."

Mitchell should best be remembered for his work on small-business issues, Rangel said.

"His passion for entrepreneurship caused people who had no confidence in politicians to respect his understanding and his fight for people getting equity in businesses," he said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, another Democrat, represents Mitchell's old congressional district, the 7th. He said Mitchell never abandoned politics or principles after leaving office and would regularly offer advice or guidance in conversations interjected with stock phrases such as "I'm a tough piece of leather, but I'm well put-together."

One instance came in 2004, when Cummings refused to schedule a meeting between President Bush and the black caucus.

"I ran into him at some function, and he said 'I just want to thank you for doing the right thing. You shouldn't have met with the president. He apparently has no respect for the caucus,'" Cummings recalled. "It was an affirmation that you had to stand up for something."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called Mitchell "a truly great leader from a truly great generation.

"He was a path-breaker, a champion of social justice - and a dear friend, mentor and colleague," she said in a statement.

"When I was a young social worker, he led our city's anti-poverty program. When he was elected to Congress, I was a member of the Baltimore City Council," she said. "When I was elected to Congress - we both represented Baltimore. There wasn't a day that went by when we didn't talk about how to help our hometown and the families who live here. Like me, he believed in our city."

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin called Mitchell "fearless, determined and committed to breaking down racial barriers."

Both Gov. Martin O'Malley and William Donald Schaefer, a former governor and Baltimore mayor, issued statements yesterday praising Mitchell.

O'Malley called him a "transformational leader.

"In the midst of a time of upheaval and change, he saw clearly where our nation's ongoing struggle for justice must head next - economic opportunity for all," O'Malley said.

Schaefer called Mitchell a "true fighter for civil rights ... who always had the best interests of his constituents in mind."

After announcing he would not seek a ninth term in Congress, Mitchell made one last stab at elected office. In 1986, he joined the gubernatorial ticket of then-Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs in a long-shot race against Schaefer which Schaefer won handily.

Sachs recalled yesterday that the two ran on a theme of "One Maryland" and emphasized social issues, which appealed to Mitchell.

Sachs remembered Mitchell for his oratorical ability - particulary his penchant for quoting passages of poetry that he described as "appropriate, uplifting and moving.

"What I used to marvel at was that he memorized these things and he used them to such effect," Sachs said.

He also recalled borrowing a quotation from the liberal 20th century American playwright Lillian Hellman in introducing Mitchell as his running mate.

"He didn't trim his conscience to fit this year's fashions," Sachs said.

eric.siegel@baltsun.com david.nitkin@baltsun.com

Members of The Sun's staff contributed to this article.

Parren J. Mitchell

1922 - born to Clarence Mitchell Sr. and Elsie Davis Mitchell in Baltimore, the ninth of 10 children.

1945 - received the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in Italy. He served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army in World War II.

1950 - sued the University of Maryland, College Park, to become its first black student to enroll in graduate classes, earning a master's degree in 1952.

1970 - elected to the House of Representatives for Maryland's 7th District, becoming Maryland's first African-American congressman.

1971 - helped establish the Congressional Black Caucus with 12 other congressional members.

1976 - added an amendment to a public works bill requiring governments that receive federal grants to set aside 10 percent for minority contractors.

1980 - founded nonprofit group, Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund.

1986 - ran for lieutenant governor on ticket with Stephen H. Sachs, losing in the Democratic primary to ticket headed by William Donald Schaefer.

1987 - retired from Congress.

May 28, 2007 - died of pneumonia at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

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