Who Was the Unsung Hero of the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Debating whether MLK or LBJ deserves more credit slights people like Clarence Mitchell Jr.

Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson
Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 86: Which civil rights warrior received numerous telephone calls from the president of the United States during the fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

Fifty years ago this Wednesday, July 2, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law at the White House. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a bevy of politicians crowded around him, taking in the historic moment, as significant as any in advancing American race relations since the end of the Civil War. Although the struggle for voting rights would continue for another year (and beyond), the 1964 Civil Rights Act dealt a severe blow to Jim Crow-style segregation in public schools and accommodations. At least as a matter of law, it forbade forevermore discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” It was, as Sen. Everett Dirksen famously quoted the writer Victor Hugo, “an idea whose time [had] come.” But it was anything but inevitable.

Unfortunately, since then, we’ve had to endure the long and silly debate over which man deserves more credit for the bill’s passage through the House and Senate en route to the president’s desk: Johnson, the political animal inside the White House, or King, the charismatic civil rights leader at the forefront of the march outside it. The fact is, both men were critical. And by setting up the debate in this way, we not only distort the complexity of such an undertaking, but we also dangerously reinforce the notion that when it came to getting things done during the civil rights movement, the insiders were white and the outsiders were black. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially where the 1964 Civil Rights Act is concerned.  

Just as vital to the bill’s success was another African-American leader. Another “Jr.,” he was far less well-known, precisely because he was so deep inside the process. His name was Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., and he was the chief Washington lobbyist for the NAACP during the extraordinarily heroic phase of the civil rights movement.  

As far as I’m concerned, Mitchell was and remains the unsung hero of the 1964 law. You won’t see his face in many pictures. His focus was on the law and the finesse needed to ensure that the bill had enough votes to pass. Although the law has been studied and discussed in great detail over the past half-century, thankfully new works continue to shed light on it and its pivotal players. For giving Mitchell his due, we owe a debt to Todd Purdum, author of this year’s masterful anniversary account, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As soon as I read Purdum’s book, I knew I wanted to dedicate my column on the Civil Rights Act to Mitchell.  

Let me shorthand it this way: If Netflix were to green-light a House of Cards prequel set in that era, Mitchell would be a star character at every stage of the legislative process—the man even the president called at night. 

Early Years

Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. was, in Purdum’s words, “born into genteel poverty in Baltimore in 1911, in a family that would total ten children.” His father, Clarence Sr., was a talented musician who worked as a waiter. His mother, Elsie Davis, did laundry and took in boarders. Purdum writes, “[F]or the rest of his life Clarence despised fish and cabbage because he associated their smell with the big pots his mother had on the stove next to her laundry water.”

While attending Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Mitchell had a number of jobs, including delivering ice and working as an overnight elevator operator. In 1932, he graduated from the “black Princeton,” Lincoln University of Oxford, Pa.

Returning to Baltimore to work as a reporter for the Afro-American newspaper at $15 a week, Mitchell exposed the racism shot through the Southern justice system, covering the infamous “Scottsboro Boys” case. He thought he would become a doctor, but, according to a 2007 article in the Baltimore Sun, while working at the paper, Mitchell witnessed a lynching on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that altered his trajectory. He testified to Congress about the lynching, the Sun said, and, from then on, embraced “a life of public service and political activism.” So did the woman he married, Juanita Elizabeth Jackson, daughter of the celebrated Baltimore NAACP activist Lillie Mae Jackson.