Most people know of the role the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP”) and the legendary Thurgood Marshall played in knocking down “separate but equal” laws in public education via the landmark 1954 Brown v Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, but how many know the role played by the NAACP’s Clarence Mitchell Jr. in getting Title VII passed? We at Reid Kelly, P.C. find it particularly important to explore the life of this great lawyer, lobbyist, and strategist for civil rights, and how his work impacts the work that we are all currently engaged in.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 18, 1911, he led the struggle in Washington for passage of the civil rights laws, including Title VII. He joined the national staff of the NAACP in Washington as Labor Secretary in 1946. From 1950 to 1978 he was Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, as well as Legislative Chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Working the halls of Congress, and the Executive Branch, Mitchell worked tirelessly behind the scenes ensuring that Title VII got the votes it needed to pass.
This was a very difficult time in the nation’s history. Among other things, these incidents occurred while Title VII legislation was working its way through Congress: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his letter from a Birmingham jail on April 12, 1963; “Bull” Conner unleased fire hoses and police dogs on anti-segregationist demonstrators on May 2, 1963; Governor Wallace of Alabama literally stood in the door of the University of Alabama in an attempt to block integration of the school on June 11, 1963; Medgar Evers was assassinated on June 12, 1963; the March on Washington happened on August 27, 1963; The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1963, killing 4 little girls and injuring 22 others; and President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Yet still Mr. Mitchell and the NAACP pressed on, now with new President Johnson, against the odds to get the law passed. Indeed “[s]o legendary was Clarence Mitchell, Jr., as a civil rights lobbyist in Congress that he was popularly called the “101st senator.” See http://www.clarencemitchellpapers.com/
Picture featuring Joseph Rauh, Clarence Mitchell Jr., and Roy Wilkins conferring about lobbying strategy on August 7, 1963. Credit: http://www.clarencemitchellpapers.com/
“His work encompassed the contributions of eight presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, in a mission to build a legacy of advocacy that won him the popular tribute of “101st senator,” and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Every civil rights law from the 1957 Civil Rights Act to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, plus their strengthening provisions and constructive executive policies, bears his imprimatur.” Id. Clearly, as we celebrate Black History Month, and the ground breaking Civil Rights Act of 1964, and specifically Title VII, we must also celebrate the legacy and contributions of this great man, Clarence Mitchell Jr. For more on his remarkable life, read Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s excellent piece HERE
*On a related note, we are all no doubt familiar with the contentious nature of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in Congress, including the 14 hour filibuster by conservative Senator Robert C. Byrd. However, did you know that among those that went to Capitol Hill to hear debate on the law were none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X? In fact, it was the only time that the two ever met, and lasted only a few minutes. It was captured in this now famous photograph.