A father's act can be tough for a son to follow, all the more so when your father and namesake, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., was a civil rights lion who came up fighting the good fight alongside your mother-Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first black woman to practice law in Maryland-and Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice. But Clarence Maurice Mitchell III did a pretty good job of it, despite rough patches. His contradictions-an ex-con who did federal-prison time for political corruption who nonetheless is credited with helping craft laws that made hotels and restaurants serve all people, and an accused wife-beater who nonetheless crowed about his legislative record of working to protect women from spousal abuse-only served to enhance his reputation for political and rhetorical pugilism, which earned him the nickname "The Bear."
When Mitchell III died of cancer this year at 72, he himself was lionized by the city's political class-including some, such as former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon and former Maryland General Assembly member Larry Young, who live with their own contradictions, thanks to very public sins for which they've had to pay. The kudos praised Mitchell III's oratory, wit, activism, and way-paving accomplishments for leaders who came later and called him a mentor-including, reportedly, U.S. President Barack Obama. But Mitchell III's bag of tactical tricks included battling public controversies that surrounded him, his family, and his allies by protesting that the problems were but newly minted manifestations of the very real racist conspiracies his father so successfully confronted.
To many, this approach may have smacked more of Mitchell III cynically riding on his father's untarnished coattails to distract from actual misdeeds than him carrying out a right-minded effort to beat back actual racist actors-or actor, really, since Mitchell III mostly was calling The Baltimore Sun racist for uncovering controversies. Who really believed that David Simon was a racist for chronicling the heroin-fueled rise and fall of politically connected gangster "Little Melvin" Williams, or that Sun sleuths were looking to modern-day lynch then-state Sen. Larry Young when they found he was profiting from his public office, or that its reporters, when proving that Mitchell III's brother was pilfering his very sick uncle's bank accounts to make good on his own financial foolishness, were motivated by race-based hate? Other than Mitchell III and his wide circle, perhaps nobody. But it was an effective way to create the illusion of carrying on his father's good work.
Mitchell III earned his nickname in many careers, including as a politician, a mortgage broker, a bailbondsman, a consultant, an activist, and a real-estate broker. But in his death this year, he mainly earned a moment for the world to rummage through his life and conclude that he was by no means his father's second act, though he tried hard to trade on that possibility, and while his efforts were not always good, nor were they always bad.
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