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

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
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.  

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.

The Origins of the Civil Rights Act

Entering the White House, President John F. Kennedy was reluctant to pursue a strong civil rights bill for fear it would alienate Southern congressmen whose support was vital to his other domestic and foreign policy initiatives. But the horror of the violence in Birmingham, Ala., in spring 1963 forced his hand. On June 19 of that year, coincidentally the same day Medgar Evers was buried at Arlington Nation Cemetery, Kennedy sent to Congress the civil rights bill his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy had drafted. The push was on, with Mitchell and other civil rights leaders keenly aware that Southern congressmen would try to block the bill and that the Kennedy administration would water it down.


Actually, Watson writes, it was Mitchell’s lack of faith in Kennedy that motivated his participation in the March on Washington that August. “ ‘People don’t know, but Clarence played a very major role,’ ” Watson quotes Bayard Rustin as saying. All summer long, Mitchell conducted meetings with representatives from federal and city agencies and organized church groups to pressure the government. Finally, Mitchell believed he had the votes in Congress to get a real civil rights bill passed and, in October 1963, told NAACP activists to “take off the lambskin gloves” and fight. Then, suddenly, a month later, Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. Mitchell now had to contemplate bringing up the bill with a new head man in the White House: the old Senate majority leader, LBJ. Would the Texan play ball?

Mitchell Finds an Unexpected Ally

Mitchell met with Johnson on Jan. 21, 1964, at Rauh’s insistence. Rauh later said, per Purdum, “Clarence Mitchell was the leading civil rights lobbyist and it would only work if Johnson treated him so.” Surprisingly, given his hatchet job on the 1957 and 1960 bills, Johnson did just that. Purdum writes: “While he acknowledged that he would oppose any efforts to strengthen H.R. 7152 in the House … the new president also assured his visitors that he would not brook weakening the bill in the Senate, either. ‘I don’t care how long it takes,’ Johnson said. … ‘We are not going to have anything else hit the Senate floor until this bill is passed.’ ”


Emboldened, Mitchell accelerated his lobbying efforts, and he and Johnson were in constant contact during the deliberations over the bill—one of my few quibbles with this year’s Tony-winning play All the Way. Mitchell was absent from the show, an invisible man, when in fact, he made things happen. All the way through the process, Mitchell understood that he had to keep the pressure on congressional leaders. To that end, he organized NAACP delegates from 10 states to keep tabs on lawmakers and prod them to vote for the bill.

One example of Mitchell’s lobbying genius was the notification program he organized on behalf of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights. The program was a novel solution to a major problem: Pro-civil rights congressmen had to be present on the House floor in order to block anti-civil-rights amendments. As Purdum writes, “That meant that Clarence Mitchell, Joe Rauh, and their allies would have to stake out the House galleries at all times, able to recognize members by face as they appeared. Moreover, because House rules prohibited note taking in the visitors’ galleries, Mitchell and his team would have to remember the running tally in their heads.” Also, to make sure that representatives were available on the floor, Mitchell organized “about a dozen diligent young people” known as “O’Grady’s Raiders,” after labor lobbyist Jane O’Grady, who coordinated the group. They would serve as “spotters in the gallery” and “race from office to office, rounding up members from lunch breaks or visits to the gym—an army of human paging devices.”   


‘The Man in Charge of This Operation’

The bill passed the House, but not without some late excitement. On Feb. 8, 1964, Rep. Howard W. Smith (D-Va.) announced an amendment that included women as a protected class in Title VII of the bill. Mitchell had opposed the insertion of a gender provision during the 1956 debates over the creation of the Federal Civil Rights Commission, but this time he thought it would strengthen the bill, even as many of his allies thought it could kill it. He was right. Smith’s amendment passed, and the House approved the civil rights bill Feb. 10. Mitchell and his allies were elated.


Next up: The Senate, which, for a generation, had been dominated by senior members of the Democratic Party from the South. Mitchell and Rauh often sat in on strategy sessions led by floor managers Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) and Thomas Kuchel (R-Calif.). Watson writes, “Humphrey was Mitchell’s liaison with the President, but Johnson still maintained regular contact with Mitchell by calling him at his home in Baltimore at night or early in the morning to discuss developments and to issue marching orders,” insider to insider.

Mitchell’s constant presence was important for keeping the senators on track. At one meeting, Humphrey stated that “we ought to get the hell off civil rights and onto something else.” He wanted a compromise and a cloture vote. Mitchell saved the day, Watson says, responding: “Senator, blacks in this country have been patient for years, for decades, for centuries. We have had atrocities committed on us. I think the Senate and its leadership can be patient just long enough until we can get the two-thirds vote we need.”


Mitchell remained at the center of the storm during the final stretch. On June 10, he watched as Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) mounted an all-night filibuster against the bill, and he was in the Senate chamber when that body, with key Republican support, voted 71-29 to invoke cloture and cut off debate. When the vote on the bill itself was held June 19, a year after President Kennedy had sent his draft to Congress, the Senate voted “yea,” 73-27. The House then approved the Senate version by a vote of 290-130, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law under President Johnson’s signature on July 2.  

Though King was standing behind Johnson, Clarence Mitchell, too, was a major reason for the bill’s success. Even if the cameras rarely found him, insiders in Washington knew who the NAACP’s fixer was and how crucial he had been in the legislative battle to destroy Jim Crow. “Clarence Mitchell was the man in charge of this operation,” Roy Wilkins told reporters after the Senate cloture vote, according to Watson. “He perfected and directed flawlessly a wonderful group of representatives of church, labor, and all facets of the community to make this possible.” 



Clarence Mitchell went on to lobby successfully for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the extensions of the act in 1970 and 1975. He also played a key role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act. “He didn’t have the highest title in the room,” President Johnson said of Mitchell, as Watson relates, “but all in all he had forced down my door more than any other person.” 


Mitchell entered private law practice after being passed over for executive director of the NAACP in 1978. He also wrote a weekly column in the Baltimore Sun, Purdum notes. The good news is that Mitchell received a number of awards during the final two decades of his career, including the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1969 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Jimmy Carter, in 1980. After suffering a heart attack at home in Baltimore, Mitchell died at Maryland General Hospital on March 19, 1984. He was 73. All of the 1984 Democratic presidential primary candidates attended his funeral, and Johnson’s daughter Lynda Robb eulogized him. The following year, the city of Baltimore named a courthouse after him, and the admissions building at his law school alma mater, the University of Maryland, bears his name.

Yet how many know Mitchell today?  

“My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing,” President Johnson said in signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “We must not fail. Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our Nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this Nation by the just and wise God who is the Father of us all.”


In those critical months of 1964, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. showed us how to “make our Nation whole.” Because of him, today African-American families are free to eat in any restaurant, sleep in any hotel, hold any office and watch movies at any cinema they please without having to suffer the indignity of passing a “Whites Only” sign. President Johnson and Dr. King deserve all the credit in the world for their leadership roles, but, please, let us remember Mitchell and all the other unsung insiders, black and white, who counted—and delivered—the votes.  

The devil, they say, is in the details—so, too, are the angels!

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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