Mays and Mitchell: forceful voices for civil rights

Benjamin E. Mays was the architect, the conscience, the moral voice of the civil rights movement. Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the ''101st senator,'' acted as the thunderous pile driver of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Other voices may have been more belligerent. But few, if any, contributed more to better race relations in a period of crisis than these soldiers of the movement, both of whom passed on recently.

Dr. Mays was the educator - dean of Howard University's School of Religion and president of Morehouse University. He was the molder of great black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, and former Urban League president Vernon E. Jordan Jr. ''My tutor, my counselor, my inspiration in college was Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays,'' former student Charles V. Willie, now a tenured Harvard professor, told a Harvard conference eight years ago.

Mr. Mitchell operated in Washington, D.C., which was restrained for years by legal segregation. He was chief lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1950-78, often the lone black registered lobbyist in the nation's capital. Thus his ''101st senator'' title.

He jawboned not only with senators and representatives but challenged presidents as well, as he fought for civil rights legislation - the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Law, among others.

Mitchell emphasized bold, immediate action in 1952 by daring to challenge the segregation of Florence, S.C., railroad stations. He walked through the front door of the station and claimed his rights as an interstate passenger.

A white policeman arrested him and his host, a local minister. Mitchell was cleared of charges the next day because no city ordinance applied. ''I hope this will be an end to segregation in Florence,'' he commented at the time. It wasn't. A special waiting room was then set up for ''white interstate passengers ,'' he said.

Mays often spoke of morality in fighting segregation.

''In our efforts to justify legal segregation based on race and color, let us beware lest we find ourselves fighting against a high moral law, against the democracy which we fought two wars to maintain,'' he wrote in New South magazine in 1954. ''If legal segregation is wrong, we need have no fear of its abolition.''

''How can segregation and discrimination in the church be justified?'' he once told the World Council of Churches. ''If the churches cannot practice full Christian fellowship in worship and membership, how can they preach the prophetic work to secular organizations that discriminate on grounds of race, color, and caste?''

Mitchell also spoke out on foreign affairs. In 1975, as a member of the US delegation to the United Nations, he became a cause celebre with his criticism of South African apartheid, Ugandan brutality under Idi Amin, and the holding of 20,000 political prisoners in Cuba.

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