September 28, 2023

Know your history: Houston humanitarian Mickey Leland

George Thomas (Mickey) Leland was born in Lubbock, Texas, on November 27, 1944. His maternal grandfather nicknamed him “Mickey.” Shortly after his birth, his parents separated and he moved with his mother, Alice Rains, and brother, Gaston, to Houston, where his mother worked as a short–order cook. Rains put herself through school and became a teacher.

Leland graduated from Phyllis Wheatley High School in 1963 and attended Texas Southern University. Earning his degree in pharmacy in 1970, Leland worked as an instructor of clinical pharmacy at TSU before taking a job as a pharmacist. He also served with several university organizations, setting up free clinics and other aid for the Houston–area poor.

Influenced by diverse doctrines—the writings of black activists and the emphasis of his Roman Catholic faith on helping the disadvantaged, Leland was active in the civil rights movement as a student in the late 1960s, often participating in protests, and describing himself as a “Marxist” and a “revolutionary.”

He was one of the key figures who sparked what became known as the “TSU riots” in 1967.  His arrest while demonstrating against police brutality proved to be a pivotal moment in his life, persuading Leland to work within the political system rather than against it. Leland was first elected to the Texas state house of representatives in 1972 and served his Houston neighborhood from 1973 to 1979. He quickly earned a reputation as a militant, firebrand politician in the state legislature, appearing on the first day in a tie–dyed dashiki shirt, an Afro haircut, and platform shoes.

In 1978, three–term Houston Representative Barbara Jordan announced her retirement from Congress. Leland faced off against another African American candidate, Anthony Hall, and won in a runoff primary. Without official opposition in the general election, Leland won 97 percent of the vote for the 96th Congress (1979–1981). He was re–elected five times.

Leland proved an active advocate for all minorities, focusing particularly on the needs of his black and Hispanic constituents. To best serve the large Mexican–American population in his district, Leland learned Spanish.  One of his first acts in Congress was to fund a six–week trip to Israel to allow underprivileged black teenagers from the Houston area to learn about Jewish culture and to create a cross–cultural dialogue between the youths in the two countries.

Leland regularly raised aid for Houston–area food banks, which provided him with greater leverage for creating a committee on hunger. He was also an outspoken advocate for alleviating hunger in Africa.

On August 7, 1989, Leland took advantage of the congressional summer recess to check on the progress of a refugee camp near the Sudanese–Ethiopian border. Shortly after his plane took off from Addis Ababa, it crashed over a mountainous region in Ethiopia while navigating a storm. All 15 people aboard were killed, including Leland and three congressional aides. Out of mutual respect for Leland, the United States and Ethiopia temporarily repaired their strained diplomatic relations, and Ethiopian military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam allowed American military spy planes to search for Leland’s downed aircraft. The U.S. military discovered the wreckage after seven days of searching, and a congressional delegation accompanied Leland’s remains to Texas for burial.

He had a wife, Alison, and a son, Jarrett.

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