Parren James Mitchell was a civil rights activist, the first African American elected to Congress from the South since 1898, and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Born in 1922, Mitchell grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and attended public schools there. His father was a waiter and his mother a homemaker. Mitchell was one of ten children in a family dedicated to civil rights. His brother Clarence Mitchell would go on to become the chief lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Several nephews would enter state politics and Maryland voters knew the family as the “black Kennedys.”
After high school Mitchell served as an officer in World War II, and was wounded in Italy. He came home and graduated from Morgan State College in 1950. After college, the University of Maryland denied him admission to do graduate work, setting up a program for him to study off campus. Mitchell sued the university, gained admission, and earned a masters degree in sociology in 1952. During the 1950s Mitchell also fought to integrate public facilities in Maryland. After graduate school, Mitchell worked as a probation officer and an official in Baltimore city administration. He taught briefly at Morgan State College before launching an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1968.
Two years later Mitchell won his bid for Congress and became the first black Congressman from Maryland and the first Southern black elected to Congress in the twentieth century. He joined twelve other African American representatives to form the Congressional Black Caucus, and later served as its chairman. An avowed liberal, Mitchell opposed the Vietnam War and was among the first Congressmen to call for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Known as an eloquent and sometimes fiery orator, Mitchell later criticized President Ronald Reagan for his economic policies and for nominating few blacks for judgeships and executive positions.
Mitchell believed that empowering blacks economically would be the second wave of the civil rights movement. As chairman of the House Small Business Committee, he fought to provide business opportunities to minorities and women. In 1976 he wrote an amendment to a public works bill that required local governments receiving federal grants to set aside ten percent of the money for contracts with businesses owned by minorities and women. In 1980 he wrote another amendment that extended the provision to transportation spending.
Mitchell resigned from Congress in 1986 to run for lieutenant governor of Maryland. He lost that race. Mitchell would serve as a mentor to later black Congressmen from Maryland. A series of strokes confined him to a nursing home in the years before his death in 2007.