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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Juanita Jackson Mitchell’s Expansive NAACP Role: From Baltimore to National

BHW 40: November 4, 2023

A photograph of young Black women activists Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Laura Kellum standing alongside the wrongly incarcerated Scottsboro Boys, a group of African American men. Mitchell and Kellum are dressed in formal attire, while the men are wearing working clothes.
Figure 1. Britton & Patterson, “Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell,” 1937, Smithsonian Open Access [1].


In 1935, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Baltimore branch leader Juanita Jackson Mitchell relocated to New York City to work at the NAACP’s national office. Having just completed her master’s degree in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, she was hired as special assistant to Executive Secretary Walter White. [2] The next year, she asked White to convince the board of directors to restructure the NAACP’s ineffective youth sections. The board agreed and named Mitchell the inaugural national youth director. [3] As she transitioned from local leadership in Baltimore to the national civil rights stage, her commitment to Black youth empowerment never wavered. Surveying the movement in 1938, she observed, “Throughout the country, considerable numbers of Negro youth are becoming increasingly conscious of the social upheaval of our times, and their vital interests in the events that are determining their future. With a desperation born of dependency, unfulfillment, and injustice, they are proclaiming their convictions and asserting their ideals.” [4] She cultivated this youth momentum while leading the City-Wide Young People’s Forum in Baltimore and brought this experience to her national office pursuits. Mitchell’s work restructuring the NAACP’s youth sections, her sharp vision for democratic youth leadership, and the specific case of her Scottsboro Boys visit (Figure 1) clarify her immense national contributions to the 1930s Black freedom movement.

At the center of Mitchell’s NAACP youth restructuring was her creation of youth councils and college chapters. Through these localized organizational entities, she created a well-ordered collaborative youth movement within the association. Just as she did with the City-Wide Young People’s Forum in Baltimore, she made a point of emphasizing inclusive membership and involvement. [5] By 1938 she reported, “Today, there are 101 officially chartered youth councils and college chapters in 26 states.” [6] While comprised of youth, these councils and chapters sought to ameliorate injustice for African Americans of all ages. As Mitchell told the Baltimore Afro-American in 1940, “The youth division of the NAACP is fighting to help adults free themselves of the many problems they face.” [7] She saw young people as enthusiastic catalysts for change who could forge overall social betterment.

The 1936 NAACP national convention in Baltimore was the launching pad for Mitchell’s national youth movement within the association. She was also a leading proponent in convincing the organization to hold its conference in Baltimore that year. [8] When it was announced at the 1935 convention that Baltimore would host the next year, the Afro-American rightly credited Mitchell. According to the report, “Miss Juanita Jackson, Baltimore delegate, armed with telegrams of invitations from [Maryland] Governor Nice, [Baltimore] Mayor Jackson, and the AFRO-AMERICAN, made an appeal for the convention that was applauded for five minutes.” Baltimore was then chosen to host the major event. [9] Since Mitchell had revitalized the NAACP branch in her hometown earlier that decade, it was more than symbolic that she launched her national youth restructuring in the city.

Mitchell organized the inaugural National Youth Conference of the NAACP to meet concurrently with the general NAACP conference in Baltimore in 1936. Leveraging her past connections with the Sharp Street Methodist Church, where she earlier hosted weekly Forum meetings, she used this church as a conference headquarters. [10] Of the five hundred and thirty registered delegates for these two parallel conferences, two hundred and seventy were youth delegates. [11] The significance of this new youth section being launched in Baltimore was clear. As The Crisis reported, “Baltimore was an ideal city for the initiation of this much needed and long awaited youth movement. It was in this city that the work of the now famous City-Wide Young People’s Forum came into being and subsequently lent its influence and inspiration to youth of other sections of the country.” Mitchell leveraged her history with the Forum in the city to lend credibility to the inaugural youth conference. The reporter for The Crisis marveled, “I repeat here, what I heard many times during the conference—‘Future hosts will have to go far to surpass what the youth of Baltimore have achieved.’” [12] The success of the youth conference made clear to observers and members that with Mitchell the NAACP’s youth divisions were in very capable hands. She then embarked on a national speaking tour to further ramp up NAACP youth momentum across the country. [13]

Mitchell viewed the youth divisions of the NAACP as working together with the general association to reach overall organizational objectives, with a strong emphasis on localized democratic action. While the sheer numbers of youth attendees at the 1936 convention were impressive, she knew that to exert significant influence each youth division would need to respond to its own unique local circumstances. [14] One of her main focal points for the youth divisions was their coordination of local civics education initiatives to better promote Black engagement with and improvements of American democracy. Like the NAACP in general, Mitchell believed youth would have the most success working directly within the terms of the U.S. Constitution. To accomplish this, youth members needed to understand how American democracy operated. Through youth branch citizenship training programs, members learned about voting and democracy through the lens of the African American experience. [15] This also required a well-informed understanding of African American history. To understand contemporaneous problems of democracy, Mitchell knew that youth needed to understand the role of racial discrimination in the past. [16] Youth divisions not only prioritized such education but also publicly advocated for the replacement of outdated history textbooks in schools nationwide. [17]

When Mitchell visited the wrongfully incarcerated Scottsboro Boys in Birmingham’s Jefferson County Jail in 1936, it was fitting that she did so alongside local youth division leader Laura Kellum. Indeed, Kellum is the other woman in the famous photograph of Mitchell with the Scottsboro defendants (Figure 1). That Mitchell and Kellum were both women is also significant. As historian Prudence Cumberbatch writes of the meeting and photograph, “That handshake [between Mitchell and the wrongfully incarcerated Clarence Norris] represented a transformation in the sense of how black women participated in racial politics.” [18] It was a break from the emphasis on female respectability modeled by her mother Lillie Carroll Jackson and others. The Scottsboro Boys were a group of nine young African Americans falsely accused and convicted of rape in 1931. [19] This case continued Mitchell’s clear emphasis on democratic action, as she consistently asserted that overturning these wrongful convictions would be done in full accordance with the law. She visited the Scottsboro Boys numerous times and made clear that under her leadership the NAACP youth movement was doing everything it could to follow legal pathways to their release. [20] This case also shows the remarkable level of care and humanity Mitchell brought to her activist work. She urged NAACP youth councils around the country to send personalized letters and holiday cards to the Scottsboro Boys to remind them how much they cared about them and their freedom. They also sent approved books to the prisoners that aimed to help them pursue full citizenship after their long-anticipated release. [21]

Juanita Jackson Mitchell took her experience building youth activism in Baltimore to the national NAACP office in the mid-1930s. She led the restructuring of young people within the NAACP, organized these youth with a focus on democratic action, and became a visible national representative of the Black freedom struggle, as evidenced by her well-known photo with the Scottsboro Boys (Figure 1). In a 1972 Sun interview, Mitchell looked back on her contributions to the civil rights movement. She said, “I’m an old freedom fighter… I came up in that tradition.” [22] While it is true that she was raised in an influential civil rights family by a mother whose civil rights work tended to align with middle-class notions of women’s respectability, she also trailblazed new paths. Brought onto the NAACP national staff in a special assistant role, within one year she carved out a new position for herself as national youth director. Combining great ambitions with remarkable organizing abilities, she remade the NAACP youth movement and bolstered association support nationwide. When she visited the Scottsboro Boys, she did so as an official representative of the NAACP, making a statement about the prominent place for women in the national civil rights movement. While she was certainly a freedom fighter, she went above and beyond established civil rights traditions. She consistently and actively challenged normative parameters of both women’s public activism and racial justice work. Anticipating critiques of her challenging and breaking down of barriers, she told the Sun interviewer: “Some people say, ‘They go to such extremes.’ My answer to this is that the problems are extreme.” [23]


[1] Britton & Patterson, “Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell,” photograph (Birmingham AL, January 1937), Smithsonian Open Access,

[2] Prudence Cumberbatch, “What ‘the Cause’ Needs Is a ‘Brainy and Energetic Woman’: A Study of Female Charismatic Leadership in Baltimore,” in Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, eds. Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodward (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 56-57,

[3] Thomas L. Bynum, NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936-1965 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press), Google eBook edition, xv,; Eben Miller, Born along the Color Line: The 1933 Amenia Conference and the Rise of a National Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 180-182,

[4] Juanita E. Jackson, “Young Colored America Awakes,” The Crisis, September 1938, 289,

[5] Bynum, NAACP Youth, 5.

[6] Jackson, “Young Colored America Awakes,” 307.

[7] “Mrs. Mitchell Speaks Here,” Baltimore Afro-American, May 21, 1940, 11,

[8] Skotnes, A New Deal for All?, 207.

[9] “Baltimore Chosen for 1936 Conference of NAACP, “ Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), July 6, 1935, 2,

[10] Lee Sartain, Borders of Equality: The NAACP and the Baltimore Civil Rights Struggle, 1914-1970 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), 117-118, Kindle edition.

[11] See Patricia Sullivan, Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: The New Press, 2009), 224,; Miller, Born along the Color Line, 186; “27th Annual Conference Best in Years,” The Crisis, August 1936, 246,

[12] James H. Robinson, “Youth Section of the Conference,” The Crisis, August 1936, 248,

[13] Miller, Born along the Color Line, 189.

[14] Jackson, “Young Colored America Awakes,” 307.

[15] Bynum, NAACP Youth, 18.

[16] Bynum, “We Must March Forward!,” 498.


[18] Cumberbatch, “What ‘the Cause’ Needs,” 48-49.

[19] To learn more about the Scottsboro Boys, see this article: Alice George, “Who Were the Scottsboro Nine?,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 23, 2021,

[20] Miller, Born along the Color Line, 192-193; Bynum, NAACP Youth, 19-20.

[21] Sartain, Borders of Equality, 64; Bynum, NAACP Youth, 20.

[22] Randi M. Pollack, “Mrs. Mitchell prime force in civil rights battle,” Sun (Baltimore, MD), May 16, 1972, 19,

[23] Pollack, “Mrs. Mitchell prime force,” 19.


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