Mitchell served on City Council, led an organized boycott of the city's segregated streetcars, fought housing discrimination, founded the Mechanics' Savings Bank of Richmond, and ran for governor at a time when few blacks in the South held elected office. Before all this, however, Mitchell first gained fame as a young journalist who used his newspaper to champion those whose lives were threatened by the horror of lynching.
In his early years as editor, Mitchell designed an advertisement to entice readers to subscribe. "Have You Seen the Planet!" read the headline. "It is a journal published in the interest of colored people every Saturday at Richmond, Va." Beneath the banner was a picture of the strong arm of the Planet. The ad continued:
Do you want to see what the Colored People are doing? Read the Planet. Do you want to know what Colored People think? Read the Planet. Do you want to know how many Colored People are hung to trees without due process of law? Read the Planet. Do you want to know how Colored People are progressing? Read the Planet. Do you want to know what Colored People are demanding? Read the Planet. . . . Do you want to know how to get the paper? Send $1.50 to JOHN MITCHELL JR., 814 E. Broad Street, Richmond, Virginia.1
Mitchell's advertisement highlighted the appeal of the black press. Subscribers to race journals could read news of their own communities, stories of everyday events that enriched their lives and yet were ignored or misrepresented in the white press. In black?owned newspapers people of color were portrayed as dignified, resourceful, enterprising and quick to protest injustice.
Mitchell's initial fame as a journalist came from his attacks on lynching and his efforts on behalf of black prisoners. Each week he ran in the Planet a drawing of a lynching, a grisly cartoon that showed a black man hanging from a tree. The caption read, "Shall this barbarity continue until the God of retribution marshals his strength against the barbarians?" Beneath the drawing was a list of lynching victims. He documented the violence that was sweeping the post?Reconstruction South and wrote fearless editorials in protest. And he urged blacks to take responsibility for their own defense.
Mitchell's crusade against lynching involved him in a series of incidents that enhanced his reputation as a "Fighting Editor" and assured the success of the Planet. One of the most famous occurred little more than a year after he took over the newspaper. In May 1886 Richard Walker, a black man accused of attempted rape, was taken from jail and lynched by a mob of whites near Drake's Branch in Charlotte County.
Although the white press in Richmond dismissed the lynching in a back?page paragraph, Mitchell wrote a furious editorial for the Planet. The next week he received an anonymous letter from Southside Virginia that said, "If you poke that infernal head of yours in this county long enough for us to do it we will hang you higher than he was hung." On the outside of the envelope was a crude drawing of a skull and crossbones. Instead of ignoring the threat, Mitchell printed the letter in the Planet and answered with a quotation from Shakespeare: "There are no terrors, Cassius, in your threats, for I am armed so strong in honesty that they pass me by like the idle winds, which I respect not." He then traveled by train to Charlotte County wearing Smith & Wesson revolvers. He walked five miles from the train station to the scene of the lynching, toured the neighborhood, and visited the jail from which the man had been kidnapped. "The cowardly letter writer was nowhere in evidence," he chortled. At a time when blacks were being lynched on much flimsier pretexts, his trip to Charlotte County at the age of 22 was a daring act that earned him accolades from his readers.2go to part IINotes
1. RP, Feb. 14, 1891.
2. Planet issues do not survive for 1886, but this story is told by a number of writers. See Simmons, "Men of Mark," 205; Adams, "John Mitchell Jr.," 296?97. Contemporary accounts appear in New York Freeman, May 19, 1886, and RD, May 7, 1886. See also Mitchell's later reminiscences in RP, May 15, 1915. (Mitchell slightly paraphrased the Shakespeare quotation.)