Posted: July 7, 2009
By Celia Cohen
"Delaware Notebook" is a collection of noteworthy items around the state. This edition takes a look at Littleton Mitchell, the great civil rights leader, as well as the Independence Day parade in Hockessin and a memorable observation of Legislative Hall in Dover.
Littleton Mitchell, whose life lasted from Jim Crow to Barack Obama, was a civil rights warrior.
He came from courage, the son of a woman who did not cower but defiantly stowed a shotgun at her door during the Milford riots over school integration in 1954.
He bore the injustice of being prohibited from getting into a pool to teach swimming to white students without losing his dignity.
He shrugged off verbal and gun threats, although he did call the state police when he thought a package in the mail might be a bomb. It turned out to be silverware polish he forgot he had ordered.
Mitchell never gave up the cause.
"People who stop never want to be treated equally. People who stop don't have respect for themselves," he was quoted as saying in A History of African Americans in Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Mitchell, who died Monday at 90 in a car accident near Delaware City, was the president of the Delaware NAACP from 1961 to 1991, a 30-year span that put him in the vanguard of the movement for voting rights, public accommodations, open housing and simple respect.
He was a lifelong athlete, a small, proud man, devoted to Jane, his late wife who was his partner in the movement. Despite all the drive he embodied and the orneriness he tapped for energy, he gloried in the fun of living.
One of Mitchell's favorite stories was about a sit-in planned for a restaurant in Odessa. Two demonstrators were sent to integrate it. They were so sure they would not be served that they ate their supper beforehand.
"They looked at the menu, and both of them selected the biggest thing on there, steaks. And they got served. And they couldn't eat it. Oh, how we ever laughed! They could not eat it! They brought it home!" Mitchell said.
Decades later, Mitchell was still laughing about it. Until the end, he was tickled by life.
# # #
The Independence Day parade in Hockessin brought a change to the unofficial motto of politicians.
Usually it is, "Where's mine?" For the parade it became, "Here's yours!"
Minor giveaways were distributed to the crowd. Mike Castle, the Republican congressman, had volunteers handing out little U.S. flags, the only catch being the green "I Like Mike" stickers attached to them.
Other politicians tossed out handfuls of candy. The moment was fleeting, however. By the time Tom Wagner, the Republican state auditor, reached the end of the parade, he theatrically upended an empty bucket that once held his stash of sweets.
Wagner quipped, "Like the state, I'm out of candy."
# # #
Except for the ghosts at Woodburn, the governor's house in Dover, there is rarely anything supernatural associated with the state government. Inhuman perhaps, but not supernatural.
When something inexplicable does happen, it turns memorable.
There was, for example, an occurrence four years ago during a committee hearing on embryonic stem cell research in the state House of Representatives. It was a very heated and emotional session, as one side argued the research could save life and the other side argued it destroyed life.
Suddenly a glass top covering one of the desks shattered like a solid-state version of spontaneous combustion. The nearest person was a step or two away.
It was so startling and strange, the hearing had to be halted temporarily -- and not just because of the cleanup. People were spooked.
It got even stranger as they realized the desk used to be assigned to state Rep. Bobby Quillen, a Harrington Republican who died the year before from cancer, one of the diseases under study in stem cell research.
"Bobby Quillen did that," state Rep. Debbie Hudson, a Greenville Republican, said at the time.
Recently there was another occurrence to ponder. It was June 24, the day the General Assembly finally approved gay rights legislation, 10 years of wrenching debate after it was proposed.
Debbie Gottschalk, a lawyer who drafted the original bill, went to Legislative Hall with her partner and their eight-year-old son for the proceedings. They watched the Senate vote, but he was too tired by 8 p.m. for them to stay for the House.
They left but stopped at a drive-in on U.S. 13 for something to eat before the ride home. Their son spied a rainbow, the symbol of gay pride.
"A rainbow [was] rising out of a field and spreading across Route 13 in the direction of Leg Hall," said Gottschalk, who used her cell phone to photograph it in a picture available by clicking here.
"Just beyond poetic."