It should come as no surprise that Delaware civil rights icon Littleton Mitchell is a fan of bullfighting.
The man who would later lead the state chapter of the NAACP for more than 30 years was a fifth grader in a segregated elementary school in Milford when he asked his teacher about an illustrated entry on matadors in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The teacher handed him the 1932 book “Death in the Afternoon,” in which Ernest Hemingway writes on the history and state of the sport at the time.
That moment more than any other informed the rest of his life, because just as the matador—a man armed with only a cape and sword—stands toe-to-toe with a beast intent on running him down, so Mitchell eventually faced down the brutal and humiliating injustices of institutionalized racism that threatened to trample the very promise of the United States.
The day he decided to fight, however, came later.
As a teenager, Mitchell and a friend went looking for jobs at a factory in Slaughter Neck. On an adjacent farm, Mitchell saw a black woman leaving what he thought was a chicken house, sweeping the dirt yard with a tree branch.
Against his friend’s advice, he asked the woman if she lived there. From her accent it was obvious she had come from the South. The woman told Mitchell that she was put there by the farm’s owner, who told her she’d have to “sleep there for a while.”
Mitchell, incensed, returned to his friend. “I said, ‘What if that was your mother? What if that was my mother? Man, I’d do something, but I don’t know what I can do.”
At the factory, he mentioned the farmer’s name to a worker, who immediately pointed him out.
“I went over and called him everything you could think of,” Mitchell says. “The men who were working there, they said, ‘You come on. You get yourself and you go home, because John Isaacs will have you.’ And I said, ‘I tell you one thing, Mr. Isaacs: I’m going to come back and get you. I don’t know how long it’s going to be, but I’m going to have your ass.’”
It was the beginning of a life confronting injustice where he saw it and doing what he could to fight it.
But the teenager who was so struck by the shabby treatment of Delaware’s migrant farm laborers hadn’t seen anything yet. He graduated from Howard High School in Wilmington and went on to what was then West Chester State Teachers College in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Two years into his studies, Mitchell enlisted with the U.S. Army to fight against the Axis powers in World War II. But as a young recruit in 1941, the Nazis and Imperial Japan would be the least of his problems. He was on his way to Alabama.
Mitchell’s experiences with racism until joining the Army were nothing compared to the discrimination he experienced while serving with the Tuskegee Airmen. While stationed in Alabama, he married his wife, Jane, who was fresh out of nursing school, witnessed the construction of the airfield and helped train the United States’ first squadrons of African-American combat pilots. But the mistreatment took its toll.
“That had an imprint on me. The most degrading situations I’ve ever been in were down in Alabama,” he says. “When I came home and told my mother and family, they didn’t believe me. My wife didn’t believe me.”
To prove what he said, he and Jane moved to Alabama, where she worked as a nurse at the Veterans Administration hospital, then at the Tuskegee Institute hospital.
At nearly every turn came another affront to his humanity. His uniform—the one he wore in service to the United States—made little difference.
Discharged in 1946, Mitchell made his way back to West Chester, where he completed his college education, after which he returned to Delaware to teach, eventually becoming the first black teacher of white children at Governor Bacon Health Center in Delaware City. But his commitment to fighting injustice hadn’t wavered in the interim, and the man who first joined the NAACP as a 13-year-old eventually came to lead the Delaware chapter.
It was in this role that Mitchell found a way to right the injustices he had seen throughout his life. One of his first goals was to seek out the man who started it all.
“When we came back from down in the South, I told Jane, ‘I’m going to get with the NAACP in Wilmington,’ and my first thing that I wanted to do when I became president of the state branch was migrant labor. We’re going to look at migrant labor, and I want to find out about John Isaacs,” Mitchell recalls.
He discovered that Isaacs owned several farms in Delaware. He regularly used migrant laborers from Southern states to work his fields, and he forced them to live in squalid conditions. “We did a very good study on him and we got those places closed,” Mitchell says.
Such work continued throughout his tenure, whether it was mounting support to fight against the national Ku Klux Klan, holding a meeting in Dover or investigating segregation at hospitals in Lewes and Smyrna.
And now, having retired from his post at the NAACP in 1991, he has lived to see what he never thought was possible: an African-American president of the United States.
“I didn’t think this country had matured to the point where the majority of the people wouldn’t look at his complexion or his race,” he says. “I could not conceive of the people of this country coming out and voting for a very intelligent and very secure black man.”
But vote they did, and Barack Obama’s election to the highest office in the land is the direct result of the work Littleton Mitchell and so many others did during the hard days at the height of the civil rights movement, says Federal Judge Gregory Sleet, a close friend of Mitchell’s through his father, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Moneta Sleet Jr., who covered the civil rights movement for Ebony magazine.
“I think there’s probably a direct link with Lit to my existence here on this court and even to my previous position as U.S. attorney,” Sleet says. “He was laying the groundwork, along with many others like him, people who were laboring in the trenches to build what we see today in grand relief in the person of President Barack Obama, which is something I didn’t think I’d live to see.”
John Watson, morning host on WILM-AM, also notes the link between Mitchell and Obama. “He was able to do what we hear about Barack Obama so much—bridging the gap between the two races,” Watson says. “When I first started hearing about Barack Obama, I said, ‘Well, he reminds me of Littleton Mitchell.’”
So Mitchell, the matador who dedicated himself to fighting the beast that is racism, has lowered his cape and sword against a weakened foe. Today, it’s less about fighting, more about speaking to young people about why he fought and about why the pockets of racism, the tiny incidents that deny a job or wound the soul, should be brought into the open.
“For young people to have the ability to reach out and touch him and speak with him and have him tell those stories, it gives them context,” Sleet says. “How much better is that than reading it in a textbook, if you can even find it in a textbook?”