DURING THE SIXTIES AND SEVENTIES, emotional issues abounded—civil rights, the Vietnam War, women’s liberation. But what outraged social activist Mickey Leland the most was hunger, and the fact that it existed in his own Houston neighborhood. Early on, Leland’s passion for helping the common people catapulted him into the spotlight. A street politician, he schmoozed at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and he also excelled at delicate negotiation; during his freshman term in Congress, for example, he snagged a choice spot on what is now the Energy and Commerce Committee. His allies ranged from Fidel Castro to Pope John Paul II. Leland later expanded his anti-hunger crusade to Africa; he died in a plane crash there in 1989.
He was born George Thomas Leland on November 27, 1944, in Lubbock. His father left when Mickey was small, and the family moved to Houston’s Fifth Ward.
He attended Texas Southern University, where he was student body president. After graduating with a degree in pharmacy, he stayed on to teach.
Leland’s distinctive blend of activism and humanism often confounded government officials. In 1970, after Houston cops shot and killed black activist Carl Hampton, Leland’s public criticism of the police department made him the target of an FBI investigation. In the eighties the State Department praised him for helping arrange the release of four Americans imprisoned by Castro in Cuba.
Elected to the Texas Legislature in 1972 at age 27, he enjoyed discomfiting the Anglo majority by affecting a giant Afro, dashikis, sequined shirts, and platform shoes.
Leland championed all minorities. He set up a kibbutz study program in Israel for non-Jewish inner-city kids and learned Spanish to please his Hispanic constituents. He also lent his growing clout to rising female politicians such as Frances Farenthold.
In 1978 he was elected to the congressional seat vacated by Barbara Jordan. During his ten years in office, he created the House Select Committee on Hunger, chaired the Black Caucus, helped establish the National Commission on AIDS, and passed bills guaranteeing clinics and food stamps for the homeless and fresh produce for low-income families.
On August 7, 1989, en route to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, Leland’s plane crashed, killing all sixteen people aboard. Five months later his wife, Alison, gave birth to twin boys. In 1990 the City of Houston named its new international airport terminal in his honor.