The decade began as a paradox of expectations and brutal realities. Until 1960, the NAACP was the modern civil rights movement. Its role as leader was emphasized by the virulent hatred and attacks from diehard segregationists that, following the Brown v. Board of Education landmark victory, forced it to suspend operations in Alabama, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia, and to be especially wary of similar threats in Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia. The seismic impact of sit-ins by four black college students at the all-white Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, did not register visibly on the Congress, Clarence Mitchell, Jr.’s battleground. Nevertheless, the demonstrations signaled dramatically the opening of a new, explosive front in the civil rights movement in the South, which placed immense pressure on Mitchell for the passage of more comprehensive civil rights laws.
At the same time, the electrifying election of John F. Kennedy as the 35th president of the United States heralded hope of a racially liberating frontier that transcended politics. Nowhere, however, was this paradox of hope and reality better demonstrated than in the Congress. There, outside the national glare, the southerners and their northern allies continued unfazed their opposition to implementation of the NAACP’s legislative agenda, thus further inciting racial explosions.
Kennedy’s promise to end discrimination in housing “with the stroke of a pen” considerably intensified demands for strong presidential leadership, which was not forthcoming. This reticence ignited fierce confrontations in Washington between Mitchell and the administration and, in the South, between younger blacks and white segregationists that drew international attention to America’s racial dilemma. The resulting assassination of Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field secretary in Mississippi, on June 12, 1963, consequently forced Kennedy to submit to Congress a much stronger civil rights bill than he had done earlier. With the burden of action now placed firmly in the lap of Congress, the NAACP and its allies in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights mobilized unprecedented political support to win passage of the Kennedy bill. That mobilization included the NAACPLegislative Strategy Conference in Washington on August 6 to 8 and the 1963 March on Washington the end of that August, both of which were organized by the NAACP.
The assassination of President Kennedy brought the climate of unprecedented expectations to a crucial peak and transferred the leadership of the Executive Branch to Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a southerner from Texas. Together with Mitchell, Johnson used his intimate knowledge of Congress to guide the omnibus civil rights bill to passage in 1964. Among other things, the 1964 Act barred segregation in public accommodations (Title II), the goal of the demonstrators in the South, and discrimination in federal spending (Title VI) and employment (Title VII), both NAACP goals since 1941.
The incremental nature of the struggle was promptly reinforced in 1965 with demands for stronger protections for voting rights in the South. Responding to President Johnson’s call for Congress to enact comprehensive protections for voting rights, Mitchell utilized his long experience and once more led this struggle, which resulted in passage of the bill on August 6. Its key provisions suspended the use of the infamous literacy tests or similar voter qualification devices in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and thirty-nine counties of North Carolina and authorized the appointment of federal voting examiners (or registrars) in those areas. It required that all laws affecting voting passed by those states or counties be approved by the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before they could become effective.
The following year, oblivious to the strong national tide rising against more civil rights legislation, Mitchell was the only leader who supported Johnson’s call for passage of a bill to bar discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. In his civil rights message on April 28, 1966, Johnson asked Congress to pass, in addition to the housing legislation, measures to protect blacks and civil rights workers with more effective criminal statutes (the Worker Protection provision), to prohibit racial discrimination in the selection of federal juries and empower the attorney general to sue to end similar bias in state courts; and to broaden the attorney general’s authority to sue to end discrimination in public schools.
On April 11, 1968, after Congress finally passed what was now the Fair Housing Act, President Johnson signed it into law noting that, once more, “the voice of justice speaks.” (The Jury Selection and Service Act of 1968 was passed separately.) Acknowledging Mitchell’s role, The Washington Post said he deserved a “special salute” for “the part he played in bringing the latest civil rights bill to enactment – and for the part he played in the adoption of every civil rights measure for more than a decade past.” His faith in the Congress and the American people, the Post said, “steadfastly thwarted and denied failure” in the long struggle for such legislation. “All Americans are in debt to him.”
Following passage of the laws, Mitchell devoted considerable effort to enforcing and to strengthening them.