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Mitchell, Juanita Jacksonlocked

(2 Jan. 1913–7 July 1992)
  • Thomas L. Bynum
  •  and Torren L. Gatson

Mitchell, Juanita Jackson (2 Jan. 1913–7 July 1992), civil rights activist and lawyer, was born to Lillie Carroll Jackson, a schoolteacher, and Kieffer Albert Jackson, a traveling salesman, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. As the daughter of civil rights activists, Jackson was greatly influenced by her parents’ avocation of social justice and racial equality. By the 1920s the family relocated to Baltimore, Maryland. Jackson received her early education in the Baltimore public schools. After graduating from Fredrick Douglass High School in 1927, having been denied admission into the University of Maryland because of race, Jackson attended Morgan State University. Influenced by her mother’s desire for her to receive the best educational training, Jackson transferred two years later to the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Education in 1931 and a Master of Science in Sociology in 1935. At the University of Pennsylvania Jackson joined Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and served as vice president of the National Council of Methodist Youth, in addition to organizing and leading demonstrations to protest racially segregated dormitories on campus and other segregated facilities within the community.

Jackson’s career as a freedom fighter began at the age of eighteen. In 1931 Jackson became the co-founder and president of the Baltimore City-Wide Young People’s Forum. The mission of the organization was to address issues that directly impacted black youth in Baltimore, such as equal educational and economic opportunities and Jim Crow segregation. The forum brought hundreds of black youth together throughout the city and played a vital role in helping to rejuvenate the Baltimore NAACP branch (where her mother served as president for thirty-five years). Additionally, Jackson organized a weekly lecture series that featured many influential civil rights activists, scholars, and leaders—including Nannie Helen Burroughs, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ralph Bunche—to encourage and instruct youth concerning civil rights activities.

In 1933 the forum launched Buy Where You Can Work campaigns to protest discriminatory practices of white businesses in Baltimore. Two years later Jackson was hired as special assistant to Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP. In 1936 she was appointed as the NAACP national youth director and subsequently founded the NAACP youth and college division. During her tenure she established a successful NAACP national youth movement with youth chapters in 30 states and 128 cities.

Jackson worked diligently as national youth director to marshal youth in programs geared toward black civil rights. Mobilization! Legislation! Litigation! Education! The Ballot! expressed Jackson’s passionate and strategic approach toward civil rights activism. Under her leadership NAACP youth organized educational equality, voter registration, economic justice, and especially anti-lynching campaigns. Youth chapters staged anti-lynching demonstrations across the country, sold “Stop Lynching” buttons to generate revenue for the NAACP to fight this heinous crime, and used radio broadcasts to publicize the horrors of lynchings and to disseminate the anti-lynching message to a broad audience. For example, in 1937 Jackson convinced the National Broadcasting Company to air a fifteen-minute radio broadcast of Senator Robert Wagner’s speech in support of a federal anti-lynching law.

Jackson believed that ultimately the torchbearers for justice and equality in America were young people, which compelled her to stage demonstrations protesting inequality in education. During American Education Week held each year in November, Jackson mobilized NAACP youth chapters to protest against educational inequality in their cities and states. She was also committed to fostering racial pride and self confidence among black youth and believed that they should be armed with knowledge about their rich African-American heritage. Jackson assembled a list of scholarly and popular books emphasizing black history and culture, which included works by Mary McLeod Bethune, Carter G. Woodson, James Weldon Johnson, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

In 1938 Jackson married civil rights attorney Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., whose national recognition as a civil rights leader and chief lobbyist in Washington for the NAACP for more than thirty years earned him the nickname of “101st Senator.” They had four children.

During the 1940s and 1950s Juanita Jackson Mitchell devoted considerable time and effort to voter registration and desegregating public facilities. In 1942 she led a Register and Vote campaign that successfully registered more than eleven thousand new black American voters. As part of the campaign demonstrations, Mitchell directed a march with more than two thousand citizen participants on the state capitol in Annapolis, Maryland to protest the suppression of the black vote. In 1958 she led the Register to Vote campaign sponsored by the NAACP that resulted in registering twenty thousand black Americans to vote.

Mitchell’s biggest victory against Jim Crow segregation came when she became the first black woman to receive a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1950 and the first black woman to practice law in Maryland. Mitchell then used her legal training to assist the NAACP in combating racial discrimination in municipal recreation facilities, restaurants, and public schools in Baltimore city and across the state. After the Brown decision, as a result of Mitchell’s school desegregation lawsuits and civil rights activism, Maryland became the first Southern state to integrate its public schools. She also mounted successful campaigns to dismantle segregation in public accommodations, including Sandy Point State Park, Fort Smallwood Municipal Park Beach, and Baltimore city swimming pools. Furthermore, Mitchell’s civil rights activism led to the successful hiring of black police officers, librarians, teachers, and social workers in Baltimore. In 1963 she even led her own children in a successful six-month demonstration against C&P Telephone Company for not hiring black workers as installers, repairpersons, and linemen.

Juanita Jackson Mitchell’s long civil rights career also included membership in prominent organizations and appointments on several presidential commissions. She was a member of the Black Americans Professional Women’s Club and the National Association of Negro Business. She was appointed to the White House Conference on Children by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, the White House Conference on Women and Civil Rights by John F. Kennedy in 1963, and the White House Conference to Fulfill These Rights by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Mitchell continued her activism in her community relations work, serving as co-chair of the Mayor’s Task Force Committee on Police Community Relations (1965–1967) and the chair of the Model Cities Education Committee (1968–1969).

In commemoration of her civil rights legacy as a freedom fighter, Mitchell was elected to the Baltimore City Hall of Fame for Women in 1985 and inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1990 the Maryland Women’s Bar Association named Mitchell its first honorary member, and in 1991 the Monumental City Bar Association established the Juanita Jackson Mitchell Scholarship fund.

Mitchell’s civil rights work and activism were cut short the following year. After suffering a heart attack and complications from a stroke, she died in Baltimore at the age of seventy-nine. Her legacy is a testament to her strides in civil rights and her efforts as a trailblazer as the first black woman to practice law in Maryland. She devoted her entire life toward fighting for justice and equal rights for black Americans.

Bibliography

The Maryland State Archives features a biography of Jackson and a collection of sources on her life. See http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/002300/002306/html/msa02306.html. For information on Jackson’s central role in organizing NAACP youth, see Thomas L. Bynum, NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom 1936–1965 (2013). See also Thomas L. Bynum, “We Must March Forward!”: Juanita Jackson and the Origins of the NAACP Youth Movement,” Journal of African American History 94, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 487–508. For information on Jackson’s early activism in Baltimore and with the NAACP see Eben Miller, Born Along the Color Line: The 1933 Amenia Conference and the Rise of a National Civil Rights Movement (2012). Obituaries ran in the Baltimore Sun, 8 July 1992 and The New York Times, 9 July 1992. See also Nathaniel R. Jones, “In Memoriam: Juanita Jackson Mitchell,” Maryland Law Review 52, no. 3 (1993): 503–529.