In the midst of one of many tributes to former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III at his memorial service in an Upton church Sunday night, hundreds of family members, friends and fellow politicians broke out into an impromptu singing of the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
The message of the hymn, popularized during the civil rights movement, is one of steadfast devotion to liberty. Many who spoke during the hours-long service honoring the late legislative pioneer used their own voices to laud what they said was his same devotion.
"What my father represented, in many ways, were the aspirations of all those generations that came before," said his son, Clarence M. Mitchell IV, during the service at Sharp Street Memorial Church, where the family have been members for decades. "We are the beneficiaries of this man."
Mitchell, the eldest son of civil rights leader Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., became the nation's youngest black legislator when he was elected at age 22 to the Maryland House of Delegates. He helped pass sweeping desegregation legislation in the state and moved the country toward racial equality as president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, speakers said.
He served as a delegate from 1963 to 1967, when he was elected to the Maryland Senate. He served there until 1986.
"He could move mountains with his words, and he could move people to move mountains," said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin., who spoke at the event along with Gov. Martin O'Malley, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, among others. Also in attendance were U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, out-of-state colleagues from the NBCSL and many local and state officials, from City Council members to judges.
Family members and friends shared memories of a man they called "the Bear" — a quick-witted, booming-voiced jokester who gave freely and told many before his death that they must continue fighting for the change they want to see in the world.
Mitchell's wife, Joyce, sat with her children in a pew at the front of the church, at times crying, at times laughing.
Mitchell died Oct. 11 of cancer at Seasons Hospice at Northwest Hospital. He was 72.
Rawlings-Blake called Mitchell a "source of wisdom" who was "always blunt but somehow always charming," and said the nation owes him a debt of gratitude.
"Doors were opened wide," she said of his impact on racial barriers. "We know our children will have opportunities that our parents never dreamed of."
Cummings said Mitchell's finest legacy may well be the long list of African-American legislators who are in office today because of his mentorship and guidance.
He shared a story of being 9 years old and watching in awe as Mitchell and his family organized a march to integrate the city-maintained Riverside pool.
"They taught us that we could live a better life. They taught us that we had rights," Cummings said. "He not only made it possible for us to dream, but then he made our dreams his dreams."
Mikulski said she is "a better person and a more effective senator for knowing him."
More than 40 fraternity brothers of Mitchell's in the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, which he was initiated into in 1959, held a brief service after a family gathering and before the public service.
Mitchell's brother, Michael Mitchell, gave a rousing speech, thanking various family members and friends for their support and underscoring the family's intent to continue doing the work of his brother.
Mitchell's brother, Keiffer J. Mitchell, and his son, Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., shared family stories that brought laughter to the pews and humanized Mitchell to those in the church who knew him only as a politician.
"He was a fighter, and he was also a teacher," Del. Mitchell said. "He was the uncle that everyone should have."
Micah Mitchell Hines, a niece, said her uncle was the leader of the family, but also a man on whose shoulders many stand today, including President Barack Obama.
"He was special to our family, but he was special to this country," she said. "God called him to change this country, and he answered."