I was pleased when “character, courage and commitment” was selected as the theme for Women’s History Month this year. These are the personal qualities by which societies are transformed.
In his 2012 Proclamation, President Obama acknowledged our nation’s progress in assuring universal equality and opportunity, even while he challenged each of us to continue the struggle for a society offering equity to all. As the President observed: “This month, we are reminded that, even in America, freedom and justice never come easily.”
It is historically accurate to recall that American women have always taken the lead in advancing their own citizenship. Less evident to some, however, has been the transformative impact of visionary American women upon everyone in our society. The values, determination, faith and sense of compassion that I learned from my mother have always been important strengths in my life. Yet, there are many other women to whom I feel a lasting sense of gratitude.
For Baltimore’s African-American community, two women – a mother and her daughter – exemplify the legacy of greater social equity that we have received. Working together, Dr. Lillie Mae Jackson and her daughter, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, helped to transform our very southern city into the multiracial Baltimore of today.
Few of us are old enough to remember the “Buy Where You Can Work” campaign of 1931 in which they played leading roles. Yet this effort, as much as any law, opened up jobs for many, many of our people – and served as a successful example for similar protests throughout the country. What many of us are able to remember is their decades-long leadership of the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP, the beginning of Thurgood Marshall’s civil rights career, the voter registration drives that they led, and their constant advocacy for equal rights and greater opportunity.
The daughter of this mother-daughter team, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, is often remembered as the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Law. She is also remembered as the wife of Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the NAACP activist whose work did so much to advance civil rights nationally.
Yet for me as a child, and my South Baltimore contemporaries, Juanita Jackson Mitchell will always be the lawyer who stood up for us children as we marched, day after day, to integrate the public, but segregated, swimming pool at Riverside. Ms. Mitchell’s advocacy and support at that moment taught me, for the very first time, that I had rights that other people had to respect.
That lesson changed the trajectory of my destiny.
Because of Ms. Mitchell’s example, I was instilled with a passion to study the law. Despite some who discouraged me, I persevered and brought up my grades. Eventually, I graduated from the same law school where Ms. Mitchell had earned her law degree – the same law school that Thurgood Marshall and the Baltimore NAACP had integrated in the 1930s.
Because of two committed women and the NAACP Branch they led, I achieved my childhood dream. Except for the intervention of another strong woman, helping my neighbors as their lawyer would have been my destiny. Truthfully, I was reasonably content on that humid summer evening in 1982 when I received a call from Delegate Lena K. Lee.
A master teacher, union leader, lawyer, and legislator, Delegate Lee had created a new vision of what a Black woman could hope to achieve in Maryland. Her work in public health and support for public education were legendary. With a few word that evening – and her unrelenting efforts and support during the months that followed – Delegate Lee reached out to me, a young man whom she did not even know personally. “I am going to retire,” she told me, “and I am looking for a competent and caring lawyer to take my place. I was hoping to find a woman, but I think that you will do …”
I recall these memories for you as a voice of history on behalf of those who have lifted me up in life. Yet, there is a broader purpose as well. So often, when we think about women’s struggles for equality, we define that struggle in terms of women’s struggle for equal rights. As the father of two wonderful daughters – and as a lawyer – I would not disagree.
Yet, when I gratefully recall the impact of Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Lena K. Lee upon my own life, Their personal example of conscience and sense of social duty – as much as all that they accomplished in the public realm – may be their most lasting historical legacy.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.