President Carter presents Mitchell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom June 9, 1980:
Clarence Mitchell, Jr., for decades waged in the halls of Congress a stubborn, resourceful and historic campaign for social justice. The integrity of this “101st senator” earned him the respect of friends and adversaries alike. His brilliant advocacy helped translate into law the protests and aspirations of millions consigned for too long to second-class citizenship. The hard-won fruits of his labors have made America a better and stronger nation.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 8, 1911, son of Clarence Maurice Mitchell, Sr., and Elsie Davis Mitchell, the “101st senator” was a member of a powerful civil rights family whose spiritual leader was his mother-in law Lillie Carroll Jackson, president of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches. Initially also president of the Baltimore NAACP Branch, Lillie Jackson relinquished that position to her daughter Juanita, whom Mitchell had married in 1938. Dedicating her legal talents to the cause of racial justice, Juanita and her mother through the NAACP desegregated Maryland. In Washington, Mitchell led the successful struggle for passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the 1960 Civil Rights Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 1968 Fair Housing Act, their strengthening provisions, and for constructive national policies. Clarence and Juanita had four sons, Clarence III, Keiffer Jackson, Michael Bowen, and George Davis.The Baltimore Sun celebrated Mitchell’s legacy in a book published in 1999 entitled, Marylanders of the Century. Joseph R.L. Sterne, former editor of The Sun’s editorial page who covered Congress and the civil rights struggle during the 1960s, wrote in his piece on Mitchell that:
There were many fathers to the civil rights victories; even orphans in defeat found themselves liberated. But a goodly share of the paternity belongs to Clarence Mitchell. His city honored him posthumously by naming its courthouse after him. He was, indeed, one of the leading Marylanders of the 20th century.
Mitchell’s contributions to the strengthening of American democracy extended beyond his hometown Baltimore and state to the entire nation. Here are other assessments of his importance:
[In the struggle for civil rights laws] the formulation of strategy was often the critical factor. For, while the combat may be compared to a chess game, it is one in which the chessmen constantly change value. And there were many steps from the conception of a strategy to its successful conclusion. These are skirmishes and battles, victories and defeats, all manner of crises. Each of these engagements is integral to the process of passing the bill.
Rep. Richard Bolling, interview, 7/12/82
I worked very closely with Clarence on the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, all of those busing issued that we had that were so damn tough. There just seemed to be one thing after the other that was going on at the time. Clarence was the most effective lobbyist on the outside. If you had Clarence with you it wouldn’t be long before the whole civil rights movement would be there. Occasionally, if you had to make a compromise – I don’t have one in mind right now – Clarence was the guy. Occasionally, he had to turn a corner, or something like that. If Clarence agreed to it, it would get done. If he didn’t, you might as well forget about it. He was a very practical, solid but tough guy. If you were working with him in an honest and full-hearted way, he gave you a hundred percent in return. If he thought you were slipping around, playing games, he’s spot that right away.
Vice President Walter Mondale, interview, 7/21/99
I believe that Clarence and I had a better personal rapport than I had with any of the other civil rights leaders. One that I have subsequently become well acquainted with, of course, is Vernon Jordan. But I knew Vernon when I had a problem in the White House. I got him to come on that commission to review draft dodgers, etc. Vernon, along with ten o eleven others, did a superb job in reviewing the action of several thousands of draft dodgers, etc.
But, aside from Clarence, I would say my next best friend who I had the most rapport with was Vernon Jordan. But I knew Clarence earlier and better during the tough times of civil rights legislation.
President Gerald R. Ford, interview, 8/11/98
He didn’t have the highest title in the room, but all in all he had forced down my door more than any other person.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson, at his farewell reception, 1968
Clarence Mitchell was called the 101st senator; but those of us who served here then knew full well that this magnificent lion in the lobby was a great deal more influential than most of us with seats in the chamber.
Minority Leader Howard Baker Jr., eulogy on the Senate floor March 1984