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Sat, 04.29.1922

Baltimore’s Own, Parren Mitchell born

Parren Mitchell

*Parren Mitchell was born on this date in 1922.  He was a Black politican and activist.

Parren James Mitchell was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, Clarence M. Mitchell, Sr., was a waiter, and his mother, Elsie Davis Mitchell, was a homemaker. Mitchell graduated from Frederick Douglass Senior High School in Baltimore in 1940. Mitchell served as an officer in the 92nd Infantry Division during World War II and was wounded in Italy; he received the Purple Heart.

He earned his bachelor's degree from Morgan State University, and his master's degree from the University of Maryland, College Park. In 1950, Mitchell sued the then segregated University of Maryland for admission to the graduate school with support from the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP and won admission. When he graduated, he was the first Black to do so from that school.  

Before entering graduate school, Mitchell participated in the early civil rights activity in Baltimore. These included protests against segregated seating at Ford's Theatre in downtown Baltimore City, and unequal funding for teacher training programs in the city's segregated Black school system in 1948.  He was the brother of Clarence Mitchell Jr., who was head of the NAACP's Washington office and was one of Lyndon Johnson's chief advisers during the American Civil Rights Movement.  

In 1968, Mitchell challenged and lost to nine-term Democratic incumbent Samuel Friedel in the Democratic primary. He won in 1970, becoming the first Black elected to Congress from Maryland. After the 1970 census, the 7th was redrawn as a Black-majority district, Maryland's first. Mitchell was reelected seven more times from this district, never dropping below 75 percent of the vote. He even ran unopposed in 1974 and 1984 and only faced minor-party opposition in 1976 and 1978.  Mitchell was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Mitchell immediately became a vocal member of the caucus with one of his first actions with the caucus, numbering 12 at the time, was to boycott President Richard M. Nixon’s State of the Union address in 1971 after Nixon had refused to meet the group. Eventually, Nixon met the caucus weeks later.   He represented the 7th congressional district of Maryland from January 3, 1971 to January 3, 1987. He was the first Black man elected to Congress from Maryland. 

During his 16-year career, he fought for affirmative action legislation. As Chairman of the Small Business Committee, Mitchell attached an amendment to a $4 billion public works bill that compelled state and local governments, seeking federal grants, to set aside 10% of the funds to retain minority firms as contractors and subcontractors.  He also mentored several dozen young up and coming leaders, several of whom still hold public office. Mitchell initiated a congressional investigation into Wedtech where bribes were alleged to have been offered in return for no bid military contracts. His nephews State Senators Clarence Mitchell III and Michael Mitchell ended up serving time in Federal prison for their parts in the scandal.  

In 1986, he retired from Congress but ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of Maryland as the running mate of Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs. In later years, after a series of strokes, he was placed in a nursing home but still made periodic appearances at community events.  Parren Mitchell died on May 28, 2007 of pneumonia at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He was 85.  On 5 June 2007 more than 1,000 people paid their last respects to the Congressman at the St. James' Episcopal Church in west Baltimore.  Congressman Elijah Cummings delivered the eulogy saying: "He earned the trust of people throughout the country and the world because he was constantly building bridges for others to cross, while tearing down the walls that had excluded them."  In 2015, the University of Maryland, College Park held a dedication ceremony renaming the Art/Sociology Building in his honor.

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