The Papers of the "101St Senator": Clarence Mitchell Jr. and Civil Rights

By Watson, Denton L. | The Historian, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Papers of the "101St Senator": Clarence Mitchell Jr. and Civil Rights


Watson, Denton L., The Historian


For many contemporary historians, Clarence Mitchell Jr. is an enigma, or, as some have said, an "obscure" civil rights "technician." Yet in the nation's capital so legendary was he as an advocate of racial equality that he was popularly called the "101st senator." Mitchell was director of the Washington Bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1950 to 1978 and the organization's chief strategist in the 1960s. The bureau's 45,000 documents, covering more than 83.2 linear feet at the Library of Congress (plus an equal number in other scattered locations), document Mitchell's pivotal role as director of the struggle for passage of civil rights laws and adoption of related constructive government polices. This article is intended to inspire a better appreciation for Mitchell's unique role as a civil rights lobbyist responsible for the daily grind of petitioning Congress and the White House in order to ensure passage of civil rights legislation.

The civil rights movement is frequently understood as consisting primarily of dramatic marches and fiery protests. Indeed, the focus of many civil rights scholars has been upon the "morality play" of the very visual and visceral, emotional struggle in the South, or on Malcolm X's inspiring role as a black nationalist. The larger truth, however, is that while the South was the epicenter of the civil rights movement, the struggle was not a regional but a national movement where the episodic incidents of violent protest reinforced a very intense, long-running series of political and constitutional battles involving the courts, the Congress, and the executive branch. Certainly nonviolent confrontations required extreme bravery, hut the drudgery of parliamentary battles and administrative mobilization demanded unique leadership, statesmanship, and perseverance. As with the legal struggle, the legislative struggle was painfully incremental. As Mitchell explained in 1950: "Washington is not just the Congress. It is also the numerous executive agencies of government that administer laws affecting our daily lives. In the Capital, the NAACP is a David operating against a great many strongly supported, loud-talking Goliaths. We never forget, however, that the original David won." (1)

The failure to appreciate the NAACP's role as a mighty political machine, and the extent to which its legislative program was central to the civil rights movement's success, is copiously documented by histories that have ignored its contributions in Washington. Noting this problem, the highly respected August Meier, then a professor at Kent State University, on 5 November 1992 challenged his colleagues in his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Atlanta, Georgia, accordingly: "It is indeed surprising that even after the shift in racial consciousness brought about in the late 1950s and 1960s, most of the books on liberal reform either have omitted or have given only passing attention to the NAACP." This, he said, is "especially ironic in view of the NAACP's attempt to extend Progressive values, goals, and methods into the area of race relations" (2)

The work of Steven Lawson, a solid, younger historian, demonstrates Meier's point. Discussing the call in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, for a march on Washington to press his demand for an end to discrimination in war-related industries, and for desegregation of the armed services, Lawson wrote, "Though this proposal had the endorsement of established black groups such as the NAACP, the MOWM [March on Washington Movement] derived its power from the black masses rather than middle-class reformers, who generally worked for change through the courts and legislature" (3) The truth is that the involvement of the black masses was never more than a threat. Randolph called for a march on Washington of 10,000 blacks; Walter White, NAACP executive secretary, who accompanied Randolph to the White House to press for Roosevelt's action, upped the number to 100,000. …

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