By Darwin Campbell, African-American News&Issues
“Come You Blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to see me… insomuch as you did it to the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me…” – Jesus Christ- Matt. 25:34-36, 40.
Houston- Even though it has been 25 years since one of Houston’s greatest native sons perished in a tragic plane crash, his light today still shines bright and his legacy continues to be an inspiration to those influenced by his compassionate heart and benevolent spirit.
Led by 18th District Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, family, officials, dignitaries and friends gathered at Mickey Leland Memorial Park in the 5th Ward to pause for the laying of a wreath and a time for reflection on the service and life of the Honorable George Thomas “Mickey” Leland.
At the same time, solemn and celebratory observances were being held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Washington, D.C.
“Mickey Leland was humble, but larger than life man who humbled himself to find the most impoverished and neediest and worked to make the pathway of their life better,” Jackson Lee said. “He was a man who sought to make the pathways of those unknown to him better than the misery in which he found them…Congressman Leland left a remarkable footprint not only on Houston and Texas and America, but also on the world.”
Leland, the former 18th District Congressman, was know as America’s most effective spokesman for hungry people in the United States and throughout the world.
Native Ethiopian Matchash-Kass Hattix, know lovingly as “Mamma Africa”, recalled his service in helping the Ethiopian people. She noted that his memory is alive so much that many shops and businesses in Ethiopia are named after Mickey Leland.
“Ethiopia Loves Mickey Leland,” she said. “We lost a big brother and in that he gives me a have a reason to go on. We thank you. Let’s keep his torch burning, The people can see it across the ocean.”
Early Life and Education
George Thomas “Mickey” Leland, III, was born on November 27, 1944, in Lubbock, Texas, to Alice and George Thomas Leland, II. At an early age, he, along with his mother and brother (William Gaston Leland), took up residence in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas.
Growing up in a predominately African American and Hispanic neighborhood, Leland’s first experience with the “public” was in a segregated public school.
Ben Reyes, who grew up with Leland on Lyon Avenue, said Leland was real deal – the kind of man who comes around once in a lifetime.
“He was a man who understood humanity,” Reyes said. “The 18th Congressional District has been blessed with great men and women who have understand humanity and service to fellow man. Mickey (Leland) understood it, Barbara Jordan understood it, Craig Washington understood it and now Sheila Jackson Lee works with the same spirit of humanity and compassion.”
He graduated in 1964 from Phylis Wheatley High School in Houston, Texas and attended Texas Southern University.
While attending TSU (Texas Southern University) in the late sixties, Leland emerged as a vocal leader of the local civil rights movement and brought national leaders of the movement to Houston. He graduated from Texas Southern University’s School of Pharmacy in 1970 with a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy. He served as an Instructor of Clinical Pharmacy at his alma mater from 1970-71, and set up a “door to door” outreach campaign in low-income neighborhoods to inform people about their medical care options and to perform preliminary screenings. During the same period Mickey Leland organized and led the Black Citizens Action Teams (“Black Cats”) to protest against police brutality.
Longtime friend and comrade David Benson remembered Leland by reminding people of the unselfish fire burning in Leland’s belly to fight for his fellow man no matter what the cost.
“He was a man who knew hot to raise “Holy Hell”,” Benson said. “He wanted the world to pull the world together and he became a great icon because of his love for people. All I can say is Thank you my friend for what you did for mankind and pray we all carry on the legacy.”
Leland’s Political Career
In 1972, Mickey Leland was elected to the Texas House of Representatives from the 88th District of Houston, Texas. He served in the Texas Legislature until 1978. In Austin, Leland became famous as the champion of health care rights for the poor. Leland was largely responsible for the passage of legislation that provided low-income consumers with access to affordable generic drugs.
Congressman Leland was elected in November 1978 to the United States House of Representatives from the 18th Congressional District of Houston, Texas. His Congressional district included the neighborhood where he had grown up, and he was recognized as a knowledgeable advocate for health, children and the elderly.
Former Postal Union leader Myrtle Ross, 86, recalled how Leland was a friend to all and sought to help everyone he could.
“He was a great listener,” she said. “We loved him because he sat with us, help us and never looked down on anyone.”
He worked endlessly to solve the problems of domestic and international hunger and malnutrition. Leland also fought hard to prevent food aid from being used as a political tool.
He advocated communication with all governments, even those considered enemies, in order to further humanitarian goals and supported the right of U.S. citizens to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians of any nation.
Leland was becoming increasingly successful in international human rights and world hunger issues. He fought against the injustice of South African Apartheid.
Friend Gene Lock remembered Leland as active, genuine and a difference maker. From the civil rights movement to the Pan-African movement, he spoke for the deprived and depressed with confidence and honesty. He also worked hard on the issues of civil rights, the First Amendment, Equal Rights for Women and health care.
“He was passionate, patrotic and practical,” he said. “Passion gave him courage and he was a patriot because he believe in his nation, country and community and practical because he tried to make that difference in people’s lives. We are blessed and fortunate he came our way.”
Mickey Leland died as he had lived, on a mission seeking to help those most in need. While leading another relief mission in 1989, to an isolated refugee camp, Fugnido, in Ethiopia, which sheltered thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing the civil conflict in neighboring Sudan, Leland’s plane crashed into a mountainside in Ethiopia. The force of the crash killed everyone aboard, including the Congressman, his chief of staff Patrice Johnson, and 13 other passengers from a number of government, humanitarian, and development organizations.
His Legacy and Work Continues
Though he be gone from the earth, his focus on hunger, the poor and needy will never be forgotten.
“What made him special is the fact that he looked at you and saw you,” said former aide Keith Wade. “Everybody was somebody with Mickey Leland. That love and compassion from him is what still keeps his name on the minds and lips of people in 2014.”