Lion in the Lobby

Lion in the Lobby, Clarence Mitchell, Jr.’s

Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws

Clarence Mitchell, Jr., is unique in the pantheon of civil rights history. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 18, 1911, he led the struggle in Washington for passage of the civil rights laws and promulgation of constructive national policies to protect the constitutional rights of African Americans and all other citizens suffering discrimination because of race, national origin, religion, sex, age, or sexual orientation.

After serving from 1941 to 1946 as a line officer in the Office of Production Management and subsequently in the Fair Employment Practice Committee, he joined the national staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Washington as labor secretary. From 1950 to 1978 he was director of the NAACP Washington Bureau as well as legislative chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Lion in the Lobby chronicles Mitchell’s life story and mission in getting the Congress to join the courts and the Executive Branch in upholding the Constitution to fulfill the NAACP’s egalitarian philosophy. His work encompassed the contributions of eight presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, in a mission to build a legacy of advocacy that won him the popular tribute of “101st senator,” and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Every civil rights law from the 1957 Civil Rights Act to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, plus their strengthening provisions and constructive executive policies, bears his imprimatur.

The revised Lion in the Lobby is strengthened by a detailed account of the bitter battle within the NAACP over Mitchell’s retirement. His indomitable personality defined what he saw as an unfair transition that robbed him and other veterans in 1976 of the opportunity to succeed Roy Wilkins as executive director of the organization. 

The book is further strengthened by the addition of a chapter on his term from 1939 to 1941 in Minnesota as executive director of the St. Paul Urban League. The chapter shows the systemic discrimination patterns of the upper Midwest that were characteristic of racism in the North. Mitchell fought against segregation in organized labor, an experience he used in Washington. 

The revised edition provides a fuller picture of Mitchell’s differences with the philosophy of nonviolence. He regarded the racial confrontations in the South as antithetical to the reasoning nature of lobbying. Those differences further delineated the organizational approach of the veteran NAACP, which worked within the government, in contrast to the younger groups, who worked from outside. Lion in the Lobby shows the extent to which the NAACP was a mighty political machine with Mitchell as the organization’s chief strategist. It confirms that while the younger groups made the South the epicenter, the modern civil rights movement was national.

Through the NAACP’s nationwide branch network and the LCCR, Mitchell amassed the votes in Congress to pass the laws, which were essential for the success of the modern civil rights revolution. He did so by organizing bipartisan coalitions in both houses that included conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Next to the Dixiecrats, he was an astute vote counter and expert parliamentarian. He learned those lessons from Lyndon Baines Johnson as Senate Majority Leader and others like Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., before their once-dynamic alliance degenerated into a public name-calling brawl after the colorful Harlem Congressman attacked Mitchell. The revised edition expands considerably on the earlier account of their relationship, which began in the 1950s, when the congressman began introducing the Powell Amendment to bar discrimination in federal funding for education, hospitals and other programs.