Parren Mitchell's Legacy: a just society in a peaceable world

Parren Mitchell, Maryland's first African-American congressman, saw that the key prerequisite for racial justice was economic justice. He made his mark trying to move public resources out of the Pentagon and into social spending, and local governments came to see the benefits to that.

 /By Woody Woodruff/ Parren J. Mitchell, the late Maryland Congressman, was honored recently by the University of Maryland with the renaming of the Art and Sociology Building – one of the last buildings on campus not overlaid with the effect of naming rights. It’s a tribute not to a prosperous donor, as most of the campus’s named buildings are, but to a distinguished public career as arguably the most consequential member of a very consequential African-American dynasty in Maryland.

That he was a bit of a contrarian among African-American politicians, with antiwar and economic justice principles that set him somewhat apart from mainstream civil rights icons, is part of the story.

Mitchell (1922-2007) was a member of the House of Representatives, representing a district roughly similar to the one now represented by Elijah Cummings, from 1970 to 1987. He was lots of firsts – first black graduate student at the College Park campus (he had to sue to be admitted); first black member of the House of Representatives from Maryland, a co-founder and early chair (1977-79) of the Congressional Black Caucus and an early opponent of the Vietnam War – a relative rarity among African-American politicoes, who had found that “being better to be equal” included a hyper-patriotic and pro-military stance. As a decorated WW2 combat veteran of the segregated US Army, he may have felt less of that pressure.

Renaming “Art and Sosh” – really one of the prettier and more humane-looking buildings on the College Park campus, with an unusually nice relationship to the hillside into which it is set – makes much more sense than appears on the surface. Mitchell’s degree from College Park was in sociology, and he then returned to his undergraduate alma mater, Morgan State, as a professor of sociology before beginning a parallel public career that stretched from local work in public accommodations and fair housing to antipoverty work and then to Congress.

I first encountered the name Parren J. Mitchell in faraway Florida in the late 1970s, working as a city hall reporter at a time that Mitchell and the CBC were the engine of the “Transfer Amendment.” That measure in Congress would have moved large chunks of military spending over into the domestic spending arena – community development, jobs stimulus, and aid to urban areas.  A campaign was under way to get resolutions of support from local and state governments for this significant shift of national priorities, embodying among other things the work of economist Seymour Melman on “economic conversion” from a warfare economy to a peaceable one. The St. Petersburg (Fla.) City Council, all-white and middle of the road politically, was nevertheless not the only local government to discuss this proposal in open sessions, helping themselves and the public learn more deeply that the permanent warfare economy was draining the country’s resources (even after Vietnam’s wind-down) at the expense of people’s needs. The “peace dividend” was still going to the military-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower had presciently warned.

Parren Mitchell’s older brother, Clarence Mitchell Jr., had a more conventional civil rights career as chief lobbyist for the NAACP, running its Washington office for three decades. Their careers complemented one another and solidified the family’s achievement in Maryland for at least that generation.

What’s really important about Parren Mitchell was the scope of his understanding of civil rights. He fought not only for the first-level civil rights of equal treatment and equal access, but for the economic justice needed to level the playing field for equal treatment and eventually equality in all that matters. He understood that only in a justice-for-all society could racial justice get sufficient traction. I like to think he would be a fervent Bernie Sanders backer in a year when the link between social and economic justice is being illuminated and contested as never before, including within the African-American community of voters.

Mitchell’s goal of reclaiming resources and wealth for people programs rather than military hardware has continued to be a theme in all our politics, though at some times more than others. Recent efforts by Fund Our Communities Maryland, an ally group of Progressive Maryland, tried to get the legislature to create a study panel that would redirect the state’s dependence on Pentagon spending to a more sustainable balance. (That legislative leaders instead created a panel on cutting taxes and benefiting corporations, headed by a retired chairman of Lockheed, is another, much sadder story).

Parren Mitchell’s singular focus on the allocation (and misallocation) of national wealth instead raised the question of how to become a peaceable nation in a peaceable world, to the benefit of a wide swathe of underserved people. It set him apart in his day, and puts him in the middle of today’s discussion.