Mitchell, Arthur W.

views updated

Arthur W. Mitchell

Civil rights activist, educator, politician

During a time of great injustice, Arthur W. Mitchell demonstrated courage and ingenuity in using the justice system to address civil rights violations in the United States. A civil rights activist, he was also an educator, politician, and administrator. His career is a testament to the rewards of hard work and determination.

Mitchell was born on a farm, in the city of Lafayette, in Chambers County, Alabama. The son of slaves, he was educated in the public schools of the South. In 1897, at fourteen years of age, he left home to attend the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Even at this early age, Mitchell distinguished himself and served as an office assistant to Booker T. Washington during his stay at the institute. In addition, he worked as a laborer to help pay for his education. He went on to attend Columbia University in New York City and Harvard University. Then he managed to qualify for the bar, thus opening the door to a legal career.

Mitchell began practicing law in 1927. His legal practice grew in Washington, D.C., during the late twenties. By 1929, Mitchell was established as both an educational administrator and a lawyer. He also began dealing in real estate opportunities in Chicago, Illinois. Mitchell moved to Chicago, hoping to try his hand at politics and possibly be elected as a representative for Illinois.

Mitchell's career developed during a time of great change. In the 1920s, African Americans began to play an active role in American politics, and Mitchell aspired to join them. While living in Chicago, he began working for the Republican Party. Soon he realized that party did not reflect his views. He switched to the Democratic Party, which was the party of choice for the majority of African Americans during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Mitchell worked closely with the Democrats and after the sudden death of Harry Baker, saw his chance to seek election to the House of Representatives. In 1935 he was able to defeat Oscar DePriest by 3,000 votes to be elected to the seventy-fourth Congress.

Serves in Congress

During his term in the seventy-fourth Congress, Mitchell spoke out against injustice. He disapproved of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. He challenged the legality of the Jim Crow laws that served to suppress the civil rights of African Americans throughout the South. Jim Crow laws emerged in the years after Reconstruction as a way to deny African Americans their rights. These laws gained popularity after the rulings of the Supreme Court in the late 1880s that supported the concept of separate-but-equal accommodations and services. Southern states readily enacted laws that prevented whites and African Americans from riding in the same railroad cars, using the same washrooms, or eating in the same restaurants. Mitchell, himself, was not immune to these restrictive conditions. Even though Mitchell led a very accomplished life in the relative safety of the northern city of Chicago, all people of African American descent in the South had to conform to the stifling conditions and injustice of Jim Crow laws.

In 1937, while Mitchell was traveling to Hot Springs, Arkansas, he was forced to leave his first-class seat aboard a train. He was then ordered to continue the trip aboard a Jim Crow train. As was the case throughout the South, accommodations for African Americans were inferior. Often they faced substandard conditions and the decrepit train that Mitchell was forced to ride was no exception. Mitchell immediately set out to legally challenge the transportation system in the South, by bringing a suit against the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad. This action was not taken very seriously, as the Interstate Commerce Commission set his complaint aside. Mitchell then filed a suit in the federal court system. The Supreme Court heard the long and expensive case. Mitchell argued that he was sold a first-class ticket and then was forcibly removed from a first-class railroad car and that removal was a violation of his constitutional rights. With his legal experience and education, Mitchell was capable of arguing and presenting his own case to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court finally ruled on Mitchell's case on April 28, 1941. The Court ruled that the separate-but-equal coach laws of the southern states did not apply to interstate travel and were in violation of the Interstate Commerce Act. This was a significant ruling and victory for the burgeoning civil rights movement. In reality, even though this case was a civil rights victory, the southern states continued to operate just as they always had. It would take further court battles and challenges to truly overthrow the Jim Crow system.

However, Mitchell had accomplished what he had set out to do and that was to remedy an injustice that he saw and could not accept. After the Supreme Court ruled on his case, Mitchell continued to fight civil rights injustices against African Americans. He proposed that states that were discriminatory in their accommodations and provisions for African Americans should have less congressional representation, and he staunchly recommended harsh penalties for states that did not prosecute lynching. He worked to promote a provision that would remove the required poll tax that southern blacks were required to pay before casting their vote. After World War II, Mitchell argued that African Americans fought in that war and they should be free to vote in elections. Mitchell had the distinction of being the only African American to maintain a seat in the House of Representatives between 1935 and 1943. His tireless work and dedication to the civil rights movement inspired many.

In 1942, Mitchell chose not to seek re-election and retired from Congress. During his retirement, Mitchell moved to Virginia where he resumed his law practice, continued his civil rights activities, lectured, and farmed twelve acres near Petersburg. On May 9, 1968, Mitchell died at his home in Virginia.


Born near Lafayette, Alabama on December 22
Enters Tuskegee Institute
Gains admittance to the bar and begins practicing law in Washington, D.C.
Moves to Chicago, continuing to practice law and engaging in the real estate business
Wins election as a Democrat to the seventy-fourth Congress
Travels to Arkansas and later brings a suit against the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad
Wins a case that he argues himself, which declares the Jim Crow practices regarding interstate travel illegal
Retires from Congress
Dies in Petersburg, Virginia on May 9



"Arthur W. Mitchell." In African American Almanac. Ed. Jeffrey Lehman. 9th ed. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2003.

Reardon, Karen E. and Durahn Taylor. "Arthur Wergs Mitchell." In Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History. Eds. Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. Canton, Mich.: Visible Ink Press, 2003.

                                        Connie Mack

About this article

Mitchell, Arthur W.

Updated About content Print Article