Mickey Leland: Flying into the Storm to Help

Mickey Leland: Flying into the Storm to Help

[Originally published Jan. 2022]

It is generally held that Mickey Leland was one of the most effective spokespersons for hungry people in the 20th century. How did this young man, born and raised in obscurity, become such a globally-recognized figure for this cause?

Born to George Thomas and Alice Rains Leland II in Lubbock, Texas in November of 1944, “Mickey,” as his maternal grandfather called him, was a third generation namesake. A younger brother, William Gaston, was born soon after. Their father, however, abandoned his family while they were very young, so Alice moved her tiny family to Houston, took up residence in a small rented house in the Fifth Ward, and became a short-order cook to feed her family. Alice studied to put herself through college and became a teacher. Mickey helped his mother take care of William, attended his segregated school, and graduated in the top ten percent of his class from Phyllis Wheatley High School in 1963. The family attended their neighborhood church each week, and Mickey grew in his faith.

He earned a scholarship to Houston's Texas Southern University, where he applied himself, earning a degree in pharmacology in 1970. Mickey then taught clinical pharmacy at Texas Southern before taking a job as a pharmacist. At the same time, he also served with several university organizations, setting up a "door to door" outreach campaign in low-income neighborhoods to inform people about their medical care options and to perform preliminary screenings. He knocked on doors, talked to every person he could meet, witnessed generational poverty at its deepest levels, and grew to love these neighbors, mostly African American and Hispanic. Most all lived in desperate straits. He protested against police brutality, became a leader in the Civil Rights movement, and spoke out against Apartheid in South Africa. He learned Spanish so he could speak with, and for, those without power in his part of the city.

In 1972, Mickey was elected to the Texas House of Representatives from the 88th District of Houston, and served for the next six years, becoming a champion of health rights and access to medications for the poor, the alleviation of occupational hazards, prison reform, and special care for the elderly. He also helped to rewrite Texas's ninety-seven–year–old Jim Crow Era constitution, focusing on reforming the judicial and executive branches of the state government. In 1978, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives from the 18th Congressional District of Houston, the role he retained until his death in August of 1989.

He spent days each week at soup kitchens, and walked the streets of Washington D. C., meeting homeless people. As a result of knowing their condition, he co-authored legislation for, and then became the Chair of, the House Select Committee on Hunger. Other initiatives created 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.

Mickey met Alison Clark Walton, a Georgetown University law student, in 1982 and they married the next year. Their first child, Jarett, was born in 1986, the year Mickey asked Speaker Tip O’Neil if he could take a bipartisan group to sub-Saharan Africa to assess how the US could help the suffering and starving. Mickey spent some extra months in Tanzania, and came home to raise public and private funds totaling more than $800 million, which the US then used to help feed starving people in Africa. He said, “I grew up on the Christian ethic which says we are supposed to help the least of our brothers." When asked why he cared about the malnutrition in Africa, he said he was driven by two images: a throng of starving people rubbing their stomachs and pleading for food, and an Ethiopian girl who died in his arms as he turned to ask her caretakers about her condition. "Every day I see her face," Leland said.

On August 7, 1989, Mickey took advantage of the congressional summer recess to check on the progress of aid distribution at a refugee camp near the Sudanese–Ethiopian border. Thousands of unaccompanied children had fled the conflict in neighboring Sudan and were gathered in an isolated camp, called Fugnido. They were running out of food. Shortly after his plane took off from Addis Ababa, it crashed over a mountainous region near Gambela, Ethiopia while navigating a storm. All fifteen people aboard were killed, including Leland, three congressional aides, and a number of government, humanitarian, and development representatives. Out of mutual respect for Leland, the United States and Ethiopia temporarily repaired their strained diplomatic relations to allow American military spy planes to search for Leland's downed aircraft. The US military discovered the wreckage after seven days of searching, and a congressional delegation accompanied Leland's remains home to Texas for burial.

Mickey Leland died as he had lived, on a mission seeking to help those most in need. He was mourned by hundreds of thousand across the land: white, black, Asian, and Hispanic friends and colleagues, all united in grief. The tragedy of Leland's death was compounded when Alison Leland gave birth in January 1990 to premature twin sons, Cameron George and Austin Mickey, five months after her husband's death. Mickey was born with little; yet he took what he had and gave it to God. God blessed it and fed the poor next door, in his neighborhood, across his state and nation, and even around the world. God still loves the “poor and sinners,” and calls us to love them too. It only takes a beginning.

-Karen O’Dell Bullock
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