Today in Texas History: Mickey Leland dies in plane crash
Democratic Congressman George Thomas "Mickey" Leland
(printed in The Houston Chronicle, August 7, 2009)
Leland was elected to Congress in 1978 after a contentious race against fellow Democrat Anthony Hall to fill retiring three-term Houston Rep. Barbara Jordan's historic seat. The election required a runoff in a campaign in which Jordan declined to endorse either candidate.
In January of 1979, Leland arrived in Washington, having won 57 percent of the vote in the runoff and without having faced official opposition in the general election, eager to prove himself. The young, 33-year-old Lone Star State lawmaker used his connections in D.C. to further his humanitarian goals.
After Leland won a powerful and highly sought-after seat on the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee (later called Energy and Commerce), he used his assignment to establish corporate and industry contacts that might help his national and international crusade against poverty and hunger.
Leland quickly gained the respect of his colleagues, though he was relegated to two committee's historical assigned to black lawmakers: the Post Office and Civil Service Committee and the Committee on the District of Columbia.
The young Houstonian quickly became an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which he later chaired (1985-1987). In various leadership positions, Leland successfully lobbied Congress to create the House Select Committee on Hunger. He served as chair of that committee when his fateful trip to Ethiopia was organized.
Leland was visiting Ethiopia on a working vacation during the congressional recess, a time when most lawmakers return to their districts or enjoy family time in some exotic holiday hotspot. But not Leland, a man known for his frequent appearances at soup kitchens and for visiting with his black and Hispanic constituents in some of the more violent and less alluring sections of Houston.
Congressman Leland even hired some of his Mexican American constituents to help him learn Spanish. He was a good student: Leland spoke Spanish on the House floor as he argued to retain bilingual clauses in the Voting Rights Act.
On his August 1989 trip to Ethiopia, Leland had organized a humanitarian mission to carry supplies to refugee camps on the Ethiopia-Sudan border and to monitor human rights issues within the refugee camps.
In the mid- to late-1980s, famine had devastated Ethiopia, following a series of major droughts that began in the mid-1970s. In 1984, several human rights organizations estimated that nearly 1 million people had died and 8 million people had been identified as victims of the food shortages.
By 1986, the death toll was rising due in part to a locust plague that only intensified the crop shortages. The Ethiopian food crisis created a political and economic crisis for the Communist regime. For years the international community had ignored the plight of the Ethiopians and many within the Ethiopian government were either unwilling or unequipped to respond.
Leland's trip to Ethiopia in 1989 was not the first time the Texas lawmaker had traveled to the East African country. He first became aware of and passionate about the political and social situation on the African continent during a three-month stay in Tanzania, after extending a trip he had taken while serving as a Texas state legislator.
Congressman Leland functioned as a strong but lonely voice, calling attention to the issues plaguing the continent of Africa and drawing on his personal experience both on the beleaguered continent and at home in Texas. He was a persuasive voice on the interconnected issues of hunger, poverty and injustice.
Leland was born in Lubbock, Texas, on November 27, 1944 in impoverished circumstances in a town recognized for its strong racial conflict and few opportunities for black advancement.
Leland's mother escaped the midsize West Texas city for the metropolis of Houston, taking Leland and his brother with him.
Houston provided Leland with more opportunities but he was not immune to the racism of the Jim Crow South. He attended segregated schools and lived in a segregated neighborhood within the city's limits.
Leland political consciousness came of age in the civil rights era, in which he was both a student of the movement and an activist in his own right. As older black residents in his neighborhood and across the county, took active roles in the sits in, protests and letter writing campaigns, Leland observed the history making before him and consumed the literature that inspired a generation.
Leland's self education made him an avowed leftist. He became committed to fighting injustice and inequality at all stages. By the late 1960s, following the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the birth of the Black Panthers and Black Power Movement, Leland joined the evolving black civil rights movement as it transformed from a mainly Christian, Southern and middle-class origins -- taking it on a more revolutionary, Marxist journey.
He also was about building bridges. Upon arriving in Congress, Leland developed a six-week program that sent poor African American kids from Houston to Israel to learn about Jewish culture and encourage the celebrated black-Jewish alliance and the struggles that united both groups. A disproportionate number of white civil rights activists were Jewish and leftists in American history.
After police arrested the young activist in an anti police brutality protest, Leland decided to enter electoral politics, finding limits to his bottom-up activism.
Elected to the Texas House of Representative in 1972, the youthful Leland was initially labeled a militant. He once appeared at work on the state House floor rocking an Afro and decked out in platform shoes with the customary tie-dye T-shirt of the era.
Leland's choice of work attire definitely supported his opponents' views and fed inaccurate perceptions about what was, in reality, a serious politician. Furthermore, many white politicos and white Texans alike were unfamiliar with black street culture and the depth of the social and cultural changes happening in black neighborhoods.
Leland was in many ways an unlikely politician for his era and for Texas. Still, among his constituents and many other groups, Leland died a hero. His untimely death caused great sadness among his constituents and without a doubt for his family. Leland's wife Alison gave birth to their twins five months after Leland's tragic plane crash.
Today, many foundations wisely recognize the Texas firebrand, and institutions both in D.C. and in Texas have recognized the forever-young Leland with scholarships for education and anti-poverty programs and awards.
But Congress canceled his lifetime project, the House Select Committee for Hunger, after the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich and fellow Texans Tom DeLay and Dick Armey brought Republicans to power in 1995.