Leland, Mickey 1944–1989
Mickey Leland 1944–1989
Politician, social activist
During the mid-1980s, social recognition of the famine in Ethiopia and other African countries reached its peak through noble (and sometimes ignoble) efforts of many individuals and groups. Among the more conspicuous was the response of Irish pop musician Bob Geldof, who was consequently knighted for bringing together British musicians to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and for organizing the all-day concert “Live Aid,” the proceeds from both going to famine relief in Africa. His American musical counterparts offered their sympathies for the cause by recording “We Are the World.” (However, it was reported, in what seems contradictory and ignominious, that after the marathon recording session the American musicians were treated to catered food.)
A few individuals, however, have not been able, either out of desire or circumstance, to share the applause for their efforts in so grand a manner. U.S. Representative Mickey Leland, a Democrat from Texas, was committed to ending world hunger years before it became a cause celebre. He worked to create the Select Committee on World Hunger in the House of Representatives and later pushed through Congress an $800-million aid package to sub-Saharan nations—when the singing was just beginning. “And after the issue had receded from headlines and television newscasts,” Robert P. Hey related in the Christian Science Monitor, “Representative Leland still pressed on, noting that hunger and the hungry remained in Africa.” He continued visiting Ethiopia as late as 1989. He did not receive knighthood for his efforts; he did not pose in a Hollywood recording studio. Leland simply believed in the humanitarianism of his efforts, and he gave his life fighting for them.
Leland’s dedication to the fight against world hunger was admirable, and the reason behind his dedication was understandable. He was born George Thomas Leland in Lubbock, Texas, on November 24, 1944, but went by the nickname Mickey, coined by his grandfather. He grew up in the impoverished, polyglot neighborhood of Houston’s Fifth Ward. Leland was raised solely by his mother after his father abandoned the family shortly after his birth. Through her hard-working support—she was a short-order cook who became a teacher—he was able to attend college, graduating with a degree in pharmacy from Texas Southern University in 1970. Like other
Born George Thomas Leland, November 27, 1944, in Lubbock, TX; died in a plane crash, August 7, 1989, in Ethiopia; son of George Thomas and Alice Lewis (a teacher; maiden name, Rains) Leland; married Alison Walton, 1983; children: Jarrett David, Cameron George, and Austin Mickey. Education: Texas Southern University, B.S., 1970. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Instructed clinical pharmacy courses at Texas Southern University, 1970-71; director of special development projects at Hermann Hospital, 1971-78; elected to the Texas House of Representatives, 1973-78; member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), 1976-81; elected to the United States House of Representatives from the 18th District of Texas, 1978-89; chairman of the DNC Black Caucus, 1981-85; served as a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and its subcommittees Energy and Power, Health and the Environment, Telecommunications, Consumer Protection and Finance; served on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, and its subcommittees Compensation and Employee Benefits, Postal Operations and Services (chair); served on and chaired the Select Committee on World Hunger.
Awards: Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s humanitarian award renamed in his memory, 1989.
intelligent, educated black individuals at that time, Leland had confrontations with police over civil rights activities. But he was also astute enough to realize that he could achieve quicker results working through the legislative system. So he ran for and was elected to the Texas State Legislature in 1973, a position he held until 1978. While there, Leland did not abandon his idealistic causes, nor his militant attire: “With his afro haircut, platform shoes, leather shoulder bag, and vibrantly colored dashiki, he was a jolt to the conservative Texas body,” Lisa Belkin remarked in the New York Times.
Leland’s first trip to Africa came after his election. He had intended to stay three weeks in Tanzania but did not return for three months. Leland’s absorption into the culture and his attachment to the people of Africa impressed upon him an idea that would later solidify into a tenet: There exists a world brotherhood, and people in positions of power should help those in need, regardless of who they were or where they lived.
In 1978 Leland successfully ran for the Congressional seat vacated by the highly respected Democrat Barbara C. Jordan. Although he had by this time abandoned his dashikis in favor of business suits, he still fought for unusual causes. “One of the first programs he founded as a Congressman sent poor, black teenagers from Houston to Israel for six weeks to learn about Jewish culture and heritage, as part of an effort to bridge the gap between blacks and Jews,” Belkin reported. Leland also served on the Energy and Commerce Committee, the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, and the Telecommunications subcommittee where, according to Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa in The Almanac of American Politics, he “pushed for pet causes like getting more blacks on TV programs and lifeline phone rates for senior citizens.” Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise, praised Leland’s legislative actions in opening the entertainment industry to minorities. “[Leland] was a strong advocate for minority business and it was his efforts that resulted in the large number of minority-owned television and radio stations in the nation today. He enabled a number of media outlets to provide blacks with jobs and experience, and he helped to diversify station programming to reveal positive black images.” Reflecting the ethnicity of his constituency and his concern for the poor and unheard, Leland also fought for the maintenance of bilingual provisions, offering his arguments on the floor of the House of Representatives in Spanish.
It was his commitment to stemming world-wide hunger, however, that was his raison d’etre and also a focal point for the attack of critics, “most of whom said he was too liberal and that he should concentrate on the hungry people in the United States before he tackled the problems of Africa,” Belkin pointed out. But those critical of Leland did not see his full range of actions, which, as Barone and Ujifusa described, belied those misplaced accusations: “He criticized the Reagan Administration harshly for not providing aid to the hungry in Sandinista-held Nicaragua. He [had] also worked on hunger at home, too, passing a bill giving better tax treatment to companies that contribute to food banks and establishing grants to study pediatric undernutrition.” Furthermore, Leland had been trying to create the House Select Committee on World Hunger for five years before it was finally formed in 1984, when famine in Africa was just reaching global consciousness. And for years Leland had been trying with difficulty to draw his Congressional colleagues “away from junkets to Paris and Bermuda to join him on trips to Appalachia, Africa, Indian reservations, and migrant camps,” a reporter for Time wrote.
Leland responded to critics’ charges of his lack of attention to his own country’s problems by saying, as Belkin quoted him, “I am as much a citizen of this world as I am of this country. To hell with those people who are critical of what I am able to do to help save people’s lives. I don’t mean to sound hokey but I grew up on a Christian ethic which says we are supposed to help the least of our brothers.” Two incidents on separate trips to Africa in 1983 and 1984 convinced him that the people of that country were suffering the most and receiving the least. In one, while Leland was visiting a refugee camp, an old women came toward him, touching her belly, beseeching him for food. He averted his gaze, looking beyond her, only to see thousands more like her, their mouths open, their bellies distended, their bodies covered with flies. In the other incident Leland looked at a small girl, a living skeleton, although barely alive. She met his gaze, then died when he turned away.
In an article he wrote for Ebony magazine, Leland described some of the heinous conditions and their causes that were ravaging Africa: “The Horn of Africa, the Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia are reeling under the combined effects of floods, locust infestations, and erratic harvests. These natural afflictions are greatly exacerbated by man-made famine and civil strife. The recent use of weapons of war, especially in the Sudan, has created famine conditions of tragic proportions. Southern Africa, Mozambique, and Angola struggle with internal conflict as well.”
Leland understood the necessity for a political dialogue with the leaders in these strife-torn countries, even if their interests ran contrary to those of the United States, and he urged in his Ebony article that “we must be willing to identify with Black Africa and to say to those leaders that, while we respect their right to ideological differences, certain practices of abuse and inhumanity toward their own people are not acceptable to us.” Leland developed a cordial, even friendly, relationship with Ethiopia’s president, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, a hard-line Marxist normally hostile to the United States. Through this diplomatic relationship Leland was allowed access to investigate conditions at refugee camps that might have otherwise been unknown. He also developed a friendly relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, visiting the Communist leader a dozen times and winning the release of at least nine American prisoners held on various political and drug charges. For his practice of disregarding political lines and focusing on humanitarian issues, Leland was, again, often criticized.
This dedication to humanitarian causes also cost Leland his life. On August 7, 1989, during his sixth African trip, Leland and 15 others, including eight Americans, three of whom were Congressional aides, departed from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa en route to the Fugnido refugee camp 280 miles west, near the Sudan border, where the party was to check on the progress of relief activities. The take-off had been delayed two hours because of severe storm conditions. It was Africa’s fierce rainy season, called “Meher.” Twenty miles east of the camp stood the 4500-foot Tamsi mountain. Lacking visibility, the pilot flew the twin-engine plane nose first into the mountain, about 300 feet below its peak. The plane then plummeted into a deep gorge.
The rescue response was immediate and coordinated. Previous political divisions dissolved. “The admiration for Leland was understood when Ethiopian head of state Mengistu Haile Mariam lifted a ban and allowed U.S. planes to fly over his land in search of his friend,” Simeon Booker explained in Jet. Among the U.S. planes allowed into the area was the U-2 surveillance aircraft normally reserved for intelligence-gathering missions. Jane Perlez, writing in the New York Times, focused on the irony of the situation: “The paradox for the Ethiopians is that their show of goodwill [came] after the disappearance of Mr. Leland, their best friend in Washington, who wanted to restore full relations immediately.” Weather and geographical conditions impeded the valiant rescue efforts, and the wreckage was finally found almost a week later with no survivors.
“It was as if goodness of heart and the courage to act had themselves been killed, and as if their death had unfolded on television, the theater of the real for our slowly bonding community of the world,” a friend of Leland’s wrote in the New Yorker afterward. The shock of his death was uniformly felt throughout the nation. Leland’s wife, Alison, who was then six months pregnant with twin boys, sought solace in the fact that he died “living his passion: to end world hunger,” as reported in Jet. President George Bush, also quoted in Jet, stated that Leland “was engaged in a noble cause—trying to feed the hungry.… His sense of compassion and desire to help those in need has aided millions of people from Houston to Addis Ababa.”
In a sad prediction eight months earlier, Paul Ruffins, in Black Enterprise magazine, listed Leland among five black political activists “who are still on the way up and who will still be among the movers and shakers throughout the 1990s.” Perhaps the only way to fulfill this prediction would be a carrying out of his legacy, and perhaps that legacy should be not just the continuation of the programs he started but a commitment to the best of the human spirit that he embodied. “His rarest personal characteristic,” his friend pointed out in the New Yorker, “which was also the most important one in his public life, was his ability to imagine, and his will not to forget about, the sufferings of the people he did not know.”
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics, 1990: The Senators, the Representatives, and the Governors, 10th edition, National Journal, 1989.
Politics in America: Members of Congress in Washington and at Home, edited by Alan Ehrenhalt, Congressional Quarterly, 1983.
Black Enterprise, January 1989; October 1989.
Christian Science Monitor, August 15, 1989.
Ebony, October 1989.
Jet, August 28, 1989; September 4, 1989; September 11, 1989; October 9, 1989.
Newsweek, August 21, 1989.
New Yorker, September 11, 1989.
New York Times, November 9,1978; August 10,1989; August 13, 1989; August 14, 1989; August 15, 1989.
People, August 28, 1989.
Time, August 22, 1983; August 28, 1989.
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