Houston, Texas , United States
|| November 27, 1944
|Died||August 07, 1989
May 25, 2016 05:13pm
|Info|| Mickey Leland was a singularly effective spokesman for hungry people in the United States and throughout the world. During six terms in the Congress, five years as a Texas state legislator and Democratic Party official, he focused much needed attention on issues of health and hunger and rallied support that resulted in both public and private action. |
Growing up in a primarily Black and Hispanic neighborhood, he attended segregated public schools. He became a civil rights activist while still in college, bringing national leaders of the movement to Houston. After his graduation, while serving as a clinical pharmacy instructor at Texas Southern University, he helped set up a "door to door" outreach campaign in low-income neighborhoods to inform people about available medical care and to do preliminary screenings. The patterns of a lifetime of advocacy and action to help poor people were already forming.
His Congressional district included the neighborhood where he had grown up, and he again became an advocate for health, children and the elderly as he had in the legislature. His leadership abilities were soon recognized and he was chosen to be Freshman Majority Whip in his first term, and later served twice as At-Large Majority Whip.
As he visited soup kitchens and makeshift shelters, he became increasingly concerned about the hungry and homeless. The work for which he is best remembered began when Leland co-authored legislation with Rep. Ben Gilman (R-NY) to establish the House Select Committee on Hunger. Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neil named Leland chairman when it was enacted in 1984. The Select Committee's mandate was to "conduct a continuing, comprehensive study and review of the problems of hunger and malnutrition."
Although it had no legislative jurisdiction, the committee, for the first time, provided a single focus for hunger-related issues. The committee's impact and influence would stem largely from Congressman Leland's ability to generate awareness of complex hunger alleviation issues and exert his personal moral leadership. In addition to focusing attention on issues of hunger, his legislative initiatives would create the National Commission on Infant Mortality, better access to fresh food for at-risk women, children and infants, and the first comprehensive services for the homeless.
Leland's sensitivity to the immediate needs of poor and hungry people would soon make him a spokesman for hungry people on a far broader scale. Reports of acute famine in sub-Saharan Africa prompted Speaker O'Neil to ask Leland to lead a bipartisan Congressional delegation to assess conditions and relief requirements. When Leland returned, he brought together entertainment personalities, religious leaders and private voluntary agencies to generate public support for the Africa Famine Relief and Recovery Act of 1985. That legislation provided $800 million in food and humanitarian relief supplies, and the attention Leland had focused brought additional support for non-governmental efforts, saving thousands of lives.
Leland's ability to reach out to others with innovative ideas and to gain support from unlikely sources was a key to his success in effectively addressing the problems of the poor and minorities. He met with both Pope John Paul II about food aid to Africa and with Fidel Castro about reuniting Cuban families. In Moscow as part of the first Congressional delegation led by a Speaker of the House in the post-Cold War era, he proposed a joint U.S.-Soviet food initiative to Mozambique. As chairman of the Black Caucus, Leland proudly presented the first award the Caucus had ever given to a non-black -- to rock musician Bob Geldof, honored for his Band Aid concert and fund-raising efforts for African famine victims.
Mickey Leland was a powerful advocate on other causes as well. He was a very effective promotor of responsible and realistic broadcast television and cable programming, seeking to reduce violence and assure that the characters realistically portrayed the rich diversity that makes up the American public. In addition, he frequently put his stamp on postal legislation, seeking at every turn more efficient delivery of postal services while protecting the rights of postal employees.
Mickey Leland 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. His successful initiatives expanded funding of primary health care in developing countries, including UNICEF's child survival activities and Vitamin A programs supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Under Leland's aegis, the Select Committee reemphasized the priority of hunger and the alleviation of poverty within the foreign assistance program of the United States. The committee successfully championed expanding credit to the poorest individuals in low-income countries and the use of proceeds from the sale of donated U.S. commodities for health, education and other grass-roots development activities.
Mickey Leland died as he had lived, on a mission seeking to help those most in need. He was leading a mission to an isolated refugee camp, Fugnido, in Ethiopia, which sheltered thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing the civil conflict in neighboring Sudan. Fifteen people died on the mission, including two members of his staff, philanthropist Ivan Tillem, State Department and USAID personnel, as well as Ethiopian nationals.