The trial that took place in the courtroom of Judge Eugene O'Dunne on Tuesday, June 18, 1935, barely registered on Baltimore's radar. It didn't draw much attention that day, or the day after, when it was finally reported in The Sun with a mere 100 words, wedged down low on Page 11, amid local news.
It was the following weekend before the ruling in the civil case of Donald Gaines Murray against the University of Maryland would lead a front page, and even then, it was in the Afro-American, the self-acclaimed "nation's biggest colored weekly." Blacks were a distinct minority during those Jim Crow days, and the ruling amounted to a blip on the conscience of the larger community.
The case—filed by Murray against the university for not granting him admission to its law school on account of the color of his skin—has remained relatively obscure ever since, except amid interested legal scholars and students of social justice.
But on that sweltering, 94-degree day in the Equity Court of Baltimore City, the foundation was laid for the civil rights movement that rocked the nation two decades later. And on that day, Baltimore itself changed. The careers of two of the civil rights movement's most important leaders, Thurgood Marshall and Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., were molded. The city—and, indeed, the state of Maryland—became the movement's de facto base camp. And from the heart of the struggle, the Mitchell family emerged as one of Baltimore's most prominent political dynasties.
"It began the process of changing the country," says University of Maryland law school professor (and Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler lawyer) Larry Gibson. "The Murray case was the first successful school desegregation case of any kind in the United States. It began the long road toward eliminating government-supported racial segregation, ultimately culminating in Brown"—the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision to desegregate public schools.
And it's no coincidence that that long road began here in Baltimore, Gibson says. The city had a strong contingent of black lawyers, an aggressive NAACP branch, and an activist black press. It was also a segregated southern city that Marshall often described as "up south" rather than "down south." "Attitudes weren't as hardened as in the Deep South, and there was a mixture of attitudes. It was a quintessential border city, in a quintessential border state," Gibson says. And "no two persons were more important in the development of civil rights law than . . . two Baltimoreans."
Marshall and Mitchell had known each other since boyhood. But when, as young men, they left Judge O'Dunne's courtroom that mid-Depression summer day—both in their 20's and new to their respective careers—it was with an unprecedented sense of possibility and purpose. Those principles would guide both their lives and cause their destinies to intertwine over the coming decades, in a way that went well beyond childhood peers.
"They were both great Americans," says civil rights historian Denton Watson. "And their works were related in that whatever Marshall did—his victories in the courts—buttressed, supported, gave foundation to Mitchell's work. Martin Luther King was a great leader. But you have to remember that he really built his greatness on the contributions of both Marshall and Mitchell. Without their work in the courts and Congress, King's legacy would not have been possible."
Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908. His mother, a kindergarten teacher, and his father, head steward at the all-white Gibson Island Club, raised him in West Baltimore and instilled in him the confidence that he was equal to all men, skin color notwithstanding. That confidence guided him through life, starting when he was a teenager; his father had told him that if anybody called him a "nigger," it was his duty to fight. When a white man called him that on the trolley one day, the 15-year-old Marshall took a swing and got arrested.
But it was at Howard University in Washington, D.C. years later, under the tutelage of law school dean Charles Houston, that Marshall's resolve to fight segregation took hold, and in 1934 he went to work for the local branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Started in 1912, the branch was a sleepy organization poised for revival under the leadership of Lillie Carroll Jackson and her daughter Juanita. In 1931, Juanita organized the City-Wide Young People's Forum, a movement that attracted bright young members like Marshall and became the vehicle for renewing the local NAACP.
Fellow Forum member Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. grew up just blocks from Marshall on Baltimore's West Side. Marshall's mother was Mitchell's kindergarten teacher and the two attended the same schools, including Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa.; during summers, they even bussed and waited tables together on Gibson Island where Marshall's father worked.
The third of Elsie Davis's and Clarence Maurice Mitchell's 10 children, Mitchell was born on March 8, 1911. Poor but never deprived, he grew up grounded in a strong work ethic and became the family's second breadwinner at a young age. Upon leaving Lincoln, Mitchell took a $15-a-week reporting job at the Afro, an activist newspaper at the time whose publisher, Carl Murphy, was an avid desegregationist and worked closely with the local NAACP. The first story Mitchell was assigned to cover in October 1933 was the lynching of George Armwood on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It would be the last public lynching in the state, but it left an enduring impression on the young reporter.
"The end of 1933 and the Armwood lynching was a dramatic and traumatic event that had a galvanizing impact on the whole black community, and clearly on Clarence and Thurgood and Juanita," Larry Gibson says. But it was a school desegregation case two years later that offered the first glimpse into what the Jacksons, Mitchells, and Marshall could accomplish together, and provided the underpinnings to their respective efforts to attain equal civil rights for all Americans over the next 50 years.
In 1890, two black men graduated from the University of Maryland's law school, but in 1891, the school became segregated. After that, blacks—including Marshall and Mitchell—didn't bother applying.
But by the early 1930's, Lillie Jackson had taken over the local NAACP and set out to, in the words of grandson Keiffer Jackson Mitchell Sr., systematically "dismantle apartheid" in Baltimore. And as an opening salvo, her reinvigorated NAACP challenged the University of Maryland's racist admissions policy.
In 1935, when the university refused admission to Donald Gaines Murray, the local NAACP sued. A native Baltimorean and graduate of Amherst College, Murray had received his rebuff in the form of a letter that read, "The University of Maryland does not admit Negro students and your application is accordingly rejected." The letter noted that because of the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) doctrine of "separate but equal," the university did, however, have an obligation to help Murray study elsewhere, even out of state. But the circumstances of Murray's case made it impossible for the university to adhere to the spirit—and letter—of "separate but equal."
Jackson asked Houston, then a lawyer in New York at the NAACP's head office, to try the case, and he asked Marshall to assist him. Together they went to court on June 18, 1935 and argued that because Murray wanted to be a lawyer in his hometown, and because laws vary so much from state to state, no out-of-state institution could prepare him for his career like the University of Maryland. Marshall argued that by denying Murray admission to its law school, the University of Maryland was in violation of his 14th Amendment right to a "separate but equal" education. It was the first dent in the armor of the doctrine that had allowed whites to practice legal discrimination in Maryland for decades, and Judge O'Dunne needed no deliberation. Late that afternoon he issued his ruling: The University's law school must admit Murray that fall.
Following the verdict, Mitchell "ran a torturous, uphill twelve-block route all the way from the courthouse to the Afro-American's office to write that history had been made . . . His page-one story gave a clear and detailed account of the courtroom drama and the constitutional issues at stake and revealed Mitchell's joy over the victory," Denton Watson writes in Lion in the Lobby, his biography of Mitchell.
"I could see tremendous significance for the law and I could see countless situations where injustice could be corrected by application of the law," Mitchell is quoted saying in the book. And that realization, on the heels of the Armwood lynching, prodded Mitchell to commit his life to the civil rights struggle.
Indeed, for much of black Baltimore, the Murray case redefined the possible.
With the Murray victory in hand, Jackson, Houston, and Marshall sought to eradicate segregation at all levels of public education—and public life. Out of the local NAACP legal team's efforts came equal teacher pay measures across the state, and desegregation of public golf courses, parks, and library services. In 1950, Juanita Jackson became the first black female lawyer in Maryland, and in 1953, she and Marshall sued to integrate Baltimore's Mergenthaler School of Printing and Western High School.
While Houston, Marshall, and the Jacksons battled segregation in the courts and on the front lines, Mitchell held a series of posts with civil and labor rights organizations before joining the NAACP in 1945 as well, first as labor secretary, then as a lobbyist agitating for passage of civil rights laws in Congress.
Just as importantly, he also spent those early post-Murray years courting Juanita Jackson. They married in 1938, and had Clarence M. III in 1939, followed by Michael, Keiffer, and George—all of whom they raised at Grandmother Lillie Jackson's home at 1316 Druid Hill Avenue.
On Tuesday, May 18, 1954, Baltimore awoke to a banner headline across the top of The Sun: "Supreme Court Bans Segregated Schools." Oliver Brown et al v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (or Brown v. Board of Education) was a class action suit brought by the Topeka NAACP branch on behalf of black parents seeking admission for their children to segregated white schools. The national NAACP took up the case and fought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Thurgood Marshall won a unanimous ruling—that segregated schools were inherently unequal and thus unconstitutional—in the plaintiffs' favor.
The application of Brown to non-educational facilities followed, when in 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated public beaches were also unconstitutional. And again, Maryland was the testing ground, with Sandy Point State Park and Fort Smallwood as the beaches in question.
Brown set Marshall on course to become a Court of Appeals judge, the first black U.S. Solicitor General, the nation's first black U.S. Supreme Court justice (in 1967), and now a candidate for sainthood in the Episcopal Church. In Mitchell's case, Brown meant that his many years in Washington trying to get civil rights victories written into law would bear fruit.
"The south before Brown maintained that, in practice, segregation was within their constitutional rights; discrimination, however, was unconstitutional. It was a very, very nebulous way of supporting a wrong until the Brown decision was made in 1954, which freed Mitchell to press ahead more forcefully to seek an end to segregation through laws," Watson says. "Whatever Marshall did, supported Mitchell's work in Congress."
Mitchell's lobbying efforts facilitated four major civil rights bills, most notably the breakthrough Civil Rights Act of 1964. They also landed him the nickname "101st Senator"—and his own name on the very Baltimore courthouse where his career began.
The Mitchell legacy of public service became one of the region's most storied. In 1970, Lillie Jackson's youngest son, Parren J. Mitchell (who just passed away in May), was the first African American from Maryland to win a seat in Congress. Her grandsons—Clarence Jr. and Juanita's boys—entered public office even before that: Clarence III was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1961 and the state Senate in 1967. Michael Mitchell served on the Baltimore City Council in the 1970's, and the state Senate in the 1980's.
Great grandson Clarence IV served four years in the state Senate, and Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., now in his twelfth year on the Baltimore City Council, is running for mayor.
"Lillie Jackson and the NAACP were a dominant civil rights force," Watson says. "That is what gave the Mitchell family that aura, or sense of invincibility, when fighting for the rights of African Americans."
Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. died in 1984 at age 73. Thurgood Marshall died nine years later at 84.
"How did Thurgood Marshall's and Clarence Mitchell's civil rights work affect Baltimore City?" Larry Gibson asks. "Because of Brown, my brother went to City College in 1954 and I went two years later. I went to my school of choice because of Brown v. Board of Education. It had a direct, immediate impact on my family.
"What Brown did—but it began with Murray—was outlaw government-supported racial discrimination. And that was significant here and everywhere. Ending that was a big thing."