Over the past several months, I’ve had the privilege of working on the Critical Race Initiative’s symposium in honor of the late Congressman Parren Mitchell. Tuesday night saw the culmination of all our hard work. Before I tell you how amazing the symposium and reception were, let me first tell you a little bit about Parren Mitchell.
Mitchell came from a family of leaders and civil rights activists and had a lengthy and noteworthy political career. He served in Congress for eight terms, spearheaded legislation that championed the rights of minorities, maintained close ties to his constituents and his family, and used his position to speak out against inequality and injustice. Mitchell was an astounding, trailblazing, take no prisoners, fearless individual. As I was searching through archival newspaper articles to get a sense of his politics and activism, I found some telling quotes. To give you an idea of his drive and spirit here are a few of my favorites:
“There comes a time in the lives of oppressed people when you must decide not to retreat. We retreated under Nixon; we retreated under Ford. Now it is time for us to draw the line and say we will retreat no further.”
“We are talking about more than just the Bakke case, but a system which attempts to keep the masses contained by keeping them out of work and robbing them of their manhood and a system which tries to control students by putting them in all white universities and putting 50 percent of them on probation and putting the rest of them out . . .”
The Washington Post
“1600 Students Protest Bakke Case;
Students Protest Bakke Case”
Although Mitchell has decided he is ready to leave the life of a congressman, he made it clear yesterday that his anger over the nation’s social and economic injustices has not faded. When asked by a photographer to smile yesterday to have his picture taken, Mitchell replied:
“How can I smile, when 8.5 million people are out of work. Why should I smile?”
The Washington Post
“Rep. Mitchell: Time For Something New”
“If you believe in fighting racism, you make a commitment for the rest of your life.
There’s no getting off that train.
You can’t say, ‘I’ve put five years in fighting racism and now I am finished.’
No, you are not finished.
Our job is to fight it every day, to continue to shove it down and when it rises up to shove it down even harder.”
1989 speech to the Baltimore teachers union observing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday
As you can see Mitchell was a man of character who was unafraid to not only voice his opinion but also take dynamic action in line with his beliefs. In addition to the endless ways he impacted the political arena, Mitchell also made a significant and lasting impact on the University of Maryland. In 1952, he became the first African-American to earn a graduate degree at UMD and that degree was in sociology. I think we often forget that we are not that far removed from the struggles and climate of the 1950s and that the ideals and goals of the Civil Rights Era must continue to be worked for and towards because we are not yet there, as recent events underscore.
At the symposium, four professors presented their research on different aspects of underrepresented minorities and the educational system from pre-K to the university level. Each presentation was extremely rich, and collectively they showed what the current challenges are to equitable education and what should be done to address them. Overall, the symposium highlighted how contemporary race relations, especially colorblind racism, along with many policy initiatives are working against people of color and equitable educational attainment and the creation of an equitable, diverse, and inclusive academy.
During the reception, we presented a mini-documentary on the legacy of Parren Mitchell at UMD, and State Delegate Keiffer Jackson Mitchell, Jr., Parren Mitchell’s nephew, delivered the keynote address. Delegate Mitchell shared an array of personal stories about his uncle that spoke to Parren Mitchell’s dedication and commitment to public service. For Mitchell, holding a public office was not simply a title or a job but a lifestyle and lifetime commitment.
I am honored to have contributed to the organizing and executing of this Critical Race Initiative symposium and encouraged by Parren Mitchell. Mitchell is an example of both the ability we each have as individuals to positively and substantially impact the world around us and the importance of having a community of support as well as building and being a part of a devoted community.