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November 27th, 2013

Glory Days – Thinking about Art and Parren



Harry C. Alford
While going through some old boxes the other day I came upon an old video tape.  It was a tribute to the late, great Parren J. Mitchell.  It was produced back in 1998.  We had a great relationship with Linda Gil of BET and sponsor for our annual convention BET collaborated on this tribute with us.  I scurried to a photo shop down the street and had them transform the Beta tape into a DVD.  With much pride we now have it up on our website’s homepage for the world to enjoy and learn more about this great African American.  The vanguard of Black business development who taught me and so many others so much about the necessity of Black entrepreneurship as a means to survival of our race. 

Having found Parren’s master tape I began wondering where was the other tribute we produced the year before this one.  In 1997, we honored the great Arthur A. Fletcher who was known as the Father of Affirmative Action (I have to find that tape).  Art got this moniker as he wrote the original affirmative action laws during his tenure in the President Richard Nixon administration.  He would also serve as Chair of the Civil Rights Commission and would further push the implementation of components of the Civil Rights Act such as Title VI.  The strides we made with contracting, hiring and promotion were led by Art and Parren and too many people don’t understand the impact they had on our lives, careers and opportunities that would come before us.

Art Fletcher and Parren J. Mitchell were born two years apart on opposite sides of our nation.  Art was born in Ft. Huachuca, AZ.  His father was a Buffalo Soldier.  Parren was born in inner city Baltimore, MD and his parents were known activists.  In fact, the Mitchell family is quite responsible for the success of the NAACP headquarters located in Baltimore.  When World War II began, they both signed up for the Army and found themselves in the Europe Theater.  Art was shipped to England and participated in the Normandy Invasion (France) while Parren shipped directly to Italy.  Both were wounded during combat.  Art didn’t get his deserved Purple Heart medal because the racist doctor claimed he could not determine if the bullet that went through him was from a Nazi or a red neck from General Patton’s army.  He lost his spleen from the wound and was shipped back home for a long healing process. Parren received a Purple Heart for jumping on a live enemy grenade in order to save three of his fellow soldiers.  If he would have been white he would surely have gotten a Medal of Honor.  After recovering from his wound he went right back into combat and received a second Purple Heart.  The brother was awesome!

At the end of the war they both took advantage of the educational benefits for veterans (financial aid via the G.I. Bill of Rights).  Art became very educated and was a promoter of higher education for Blacks.  He served as President of the United Negro College Fund and coined the famous term, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste”.  Parren wanted to pursue a master’s degree in his home state but the University of Maryland would not accept Blacks (even though they were getting their share of Black tax money).  So, being the fighter he was, Parren sued the institution and the great Thurgood Marshall was his attorney.  He won and the racist walls came tumbling down.  Today, the University of Maryland boasts that it “awards more degrees to African Americans than any other state university system in the nation”.

As they further matured they both saw that their destinies were tied to the Washington, DC power base.  Parren went to Congress representing his beloved home of Baltimore and served the city plus every Black owned business in a superb and courageous fashion.  Art served under four US Presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan and the first Bush).  On our behalf, Parren worked Capitol Hill and Art worked the White House continually and at the same time.  They had their inner circles, one Democratic and the other Republican.  They would meet behind closed doors and compare notes and strategize.  That’s how it was back then – Black Republicans and Black Democrats knew their role and responsibility (Black America) and they never forgot it.  Maybe teaching the greatness of Art and Parren may inspire new leaders who can return back to that successful model.  These two giants helped mold the National Black Chamber of Commerce and Kay and I thank God for that.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

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