Connie Mitchell passed away on December 14th at age 90. This iconic African American pioneer leaves deep impressions in the Rochester community and beyond, including lessons for anyone who leads an organization or group.
Her family decided to hold her wake and funeral at St. Monica Catholic Church on Genesee Street (my church) and I was honored to serve as a host/usher for the events. I witnessed a stream of Rochester’s leaders come to honor and celebrate this gentle dynamo, and was able to speak with many about their memories of her.
Among her many accomplishments cited by them:
• In 1961 she became the first Black person to hold office in Monroe County when elected to serve on what was then called the County Board of Supervisors. Remarkably, that was the highest public office held by any African-American woman in the country at that time.
• She marched with Dr. MLK Jr. in Selma, Alabama on the infamous “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.
• After the Rebellion of ’64 (a more apt term than Riot), Connie Mitchell is the one who went to Chicago and recruited the legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky. He and local Black leaders spearheaded the confrontations with Kodak and Xerox that cajoled them into finally hiring minority workers.
• The home she shared with her husband John in the 19th Ward was the equivalent of command central for decades, as current and prospective African American leaders came for consultation, sometimes encouragement, and sometimes admonishment.
• Connie and John Mitchell started Action for a Better Community in the 1960’s, a force for good in the community to this day.
• They also hosted a litany of national leaders in their home, including Malcolm X, Dick Gregory and Robert F. Kennedy.
• She received many honors including the Frederick Douglass Medal for outstanding civic engagement.
When I first saw the program for the funeral/celebration, I noted the number of prominent civic leaders due to speak. My first thought, I must admit, was a dread that they would have positive but rather bland praise for this woman. I was awed by the depth of their comments. One after the other they conveyed personal reverence and appreciation for her accomplishments and her counsel.
Among the lessons we can garner from this gifted leader:
Effective leadership requires will and humility
Jim Collins in his classic study of leadership “Good to Great”, after extensive research on the qualities of accomplished corporate leaders, concluded that “They exhibited an almost paradoxical blend of professional will and personal humility.” Connie Mitchell was a passionate, assertive leader, with a gift for blending in the lovely, modest side of humanity. From what I was told, this made it nearly impossible to say “No” to her!
Ask for help
She knew after 1964 that Rochester needed expertise that it lacked. She had the courage and the wisdom to go seek assistance from a white guy from Chicago (Alinsky). And in many of her other community initiatives, she had a way of recruiting, asking, cajoling others to join in her efforts, knowing more skills and hands were needed.
Develop the next generation
Mayor Lovely Warren has said of her, “Constance Mitchell was one of my personal heroes and role models in the fight to bring civil rights and social justice to the city of Rochester…. I am a living example of the fact that she continued to lift as she climbed.” As did many others, Warren cited the encouragement and mentoring she was privileged to receive from this wise soul.
I came away from this 3-day immersion experience with awe, not only for her accomplishments, but for the long-time, tenacious pilgrimage of the African-American community in Rochester. If life was uphill for white people, life was nearly vertical for Black people back then.
The few people I was able to ask held a common belief that the situation today is actually worse than it had been at that time. They cited:
- Even more segregated neighborhoods (and I would add, with lower property values).
- A school system that has continually declined and is failing to educate children.
- More families torn apart by a system far too eager to imprison Black people.
The near absence of younger Black people for her wake and funeral, and the sparse presence of white people, are indicators of the education and mobilization that needs to take place, a task for all of us. Some hope can be found in the Black leaders who were encouraged and mentored by people like Connie Mitchell.
Personally, I was honored and privileged to be present at the testimony and farewell for this historic figure. I find her and those who worked beside her to be inspirational. Their dedication and passion challenge me to continue not only to learn, but to ACT.
“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” Edward E. Baptist. We need to know history to understand the present.
“Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” Douglas A Blackmon. Ditto.
6th Annual MLK Worship Celebration, sponsored by United Christian Leadership Ministry. Sun. Jan. 20, 4:00 pm. Speaker: Former Mayor William A. Johnson, Jr.
“Intro to Implicit and Unconscious Bias in Professional Settings” 540WMain. Mon. Jan. 21, 4:30 – 6:30.
“Justice Post Douglass: A Community Meeting” 540WMain. Mon. Jan. 21, 7:00.
“History of Rochester Gentrification” 540WMain. Thurs. Jan. 24, 6:30 – 8:00. This one has particular meaning for me. I plan to attend.
“Expressions of King’s Legacy” at RIT, with featured speaker Tara Setmayer, CNN political commentator and former GOP communications director on Capital Hill. Thurs. Jan. 31, 12:00 – 2:00 pm.
Meeting of the Racial Equity Advocacy Leadership (REAL) Team of the Roch. City School District. January 8, 6:00 – 8:00 at 130 W. Broad St. Call me if interested in attending to learn more about this effort: 585-734-2960
United Christian Leadership Ministry. Membership meeting. Sat. Jan. 12, 10:30 – 12:00, Downtown Untied Presbyterian Church. Call me if interested in attending to learn more about this organization: 585-734-2960.