The Memorial Day death of former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, 85, was a fitting farewell and a testament to a life lived battling economic inequality by way of legislative prowess.
Awarded a Purple Heart for his service in World War II, it was Mitchell’s continued battle for minority businesses that stood out among his acts of courage.
In 1970, when Mitchell was elected the first black to represent Maryland’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, Baltimore was in shambles following the 1968 riots. At that time, Mitchell, an antipoverty advocate for the mayor, was known as the “link between the militant civil rights groups and the city administration,” reported The Baltimore Sun.
“He was a true catalyst for change at a time when few would take a stand,” says Earl G. Graves Sr., BE publisher and fellow Morgan State alum.
During his eight terms in office, Mitchell’s influence stoked a battery of laws that provided access and support to minority-owned businesses. “He began this crusade to get a fair share of the federal contracts that he believed should go to people of color,” says Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who, along with Mitchell, is a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
In 1978, Mitchell co-sponsored Public Law 95-507, which established an Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization in every agency with procurement powers. It was the first of many laws that mandated a percentage of federal contracts, which he steered to minority businesses.
“He would always say, ‘I’m a small piece of leather, but I’m well put together.’ What he meant: ‘I may have a small frame, but I’ve got a big heart,’” recalls Maryland’s current 7th District Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). “A lot of people want to say that he only affected black businesses, but that is simply not true. The things he did affected many white women and other minorities at the same time.”