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

In his profile of Mitchell in the Encyclopedia of African American History, Thomas Carney writes that Juanita Jackson founded the Baltimore Citywide Young People’s Forum “to advance the employment of African Americans during the Great Depression.” She also was the first African-American woman admitted to the Maryland bar. The couple had four children.

Mitchell also made a go at politics. In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Mitchell ran, unsuccessfully, as a socialist for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. Denton L. Watson explains why Mitchell lost in his comprehensive biography Lion in the Lobby: Clarence Mitchell, Jr.’s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws“[N]either the Republicans nor Democrats accepted black candidates.” The National Urban League did, however, and with the 1930s drawing to a close, Mitchell served as a fellow at the Atlanta School for Social Work and as executive director of the league’s St. Paul, Minn., office.

During World War II, Mitchell worked with the Negro Employment and Training Branch in the labor division of the U.S. Office of Production Management. His career in the federal government had begun. So, too, had black America’s Double V campaign for freedom at home and abroad. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission in exchange for an agreement by civil rights leaders to call off the first planned March on Washington, in 1941, Mitchell served as its associate director and then as director of field operations.  

Mitchell needed a new post when the war ended. He found it at the NAACP, which, coming out of the war, saw its membership soar to 600,000, according to its website. By 1950, Mitchell had become both director and chief lobbyist of its Washington bureau. Naturally, most people associate the NAACP of the 1950s with lawyer and future U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who was then victoriously battling Jim Crow in the nation’s courts as head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. For his part, Mitchell was in charge of the war’s other front: Congress. This was after also taking on the position of legislative chairman of the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights, founded by the great Roy Wilkins in 1950. Much of Mitchell’s activism would come through the Leadership Conference, which Watson describes as “a coalition of civil rights, civic, labor, fraternal, and religious organizations that vastly extended the NAACP’s political reach.”

The 101st Senator

“Lobbying on behalf of civil rights legislation required sacrifice, persistence, and infinite patience with mundane details and the smallest signs of progress,” Purdum argues. “Mitchell was well suited to the task.” As the ’50s rolled on, Mitchell played an active role in lobbying for the end of segregation in the military and for passage of the civil rights bills of 1957 and 1960, when then Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas was majority leader. Under LBJ, those bills were notoriously gutted on their way to becoming law, but in Mitchell’s quiet way, the groundwork was being laid. As Purdum explains, Mitchell was able to win the support of conservatives and “to cultivate civil relationships with even some of the most implacable southern segregationists.” 

Mitchell’s success was based on hard work and attention to detail. As Watson relates, chief AFL-CIO lobbyist Andrew Biemiller noticed Mitchell’s tireless efforts. Bieiller later recalled: “I never remember a time going up there [on Capitol Hill] that I didn’t bump into him. … I don’t know where he got all that energy.” Purdum writes that Mitchell “was such a tireless and ubiquitous advocate in the corridors of Capitol Hill that he would come to be known as ‘the 101st Senator,’ at a time when there were no black men in that body.”

One of the reasons Mitchell was so effective was that he was exceedingly careful to avoid even a hint of scandal. In fact, Joseph L. Rauh Jr., an attorney for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the founder of Americans for Democratic Action, recalled a time when Mitchell stopped him from jaywalking in Washington, D.C., fearing that such an offense might damage their reputations. Purdum quotes Rauh as calling Mitchell “the ideal lobbyist, in the sense that he never boiled over, but he was able to boil over when the situation called for boiling over.”  

One example of the latter came in 1956, when, according to the Baltimore Sun, Mitchell “was arrested in Florence, S.C., for refusing to use the blacks-only entrance at the town’s railroad station. His arrest stirred opposition that resulted in an end to segregated entrances.” Even if Mitchell had personal doubts about nonviolence as an absolute rule (for example, he questioned the wisdom of having “to turn the other cheek” in cases when a black man’s home or family was attacked, as he told Jet magazine in its Nov. 21, 1963, issue), he knew how to work the middle ground. “Success usually comes from action based on facts rather than on vain hopes or groundless fears,” Mitchell said, according to the New York Times. Somehow, he also found time to attend law school at night at the University of Maryland, from which he graduated in 1962.

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