TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: George Thomas Leland III, one of first African Americans to serve in state legislature
Hunger and malnutrition have haunted the world for ages. Some great spirits across the centuries spent their lives fighting this scourge and helping others. One such man, Mickey Leland, a Houston congressman, dedicated his career to alleviating hunger and poverty. In 1989, the congressman died fighting for this cause.
George Thomas Leland III, nicknamed “Mickey,” was born in Lubbock in November 1944. His father abandoned the family when he was a child, and his mother took him and his brother to Houston where she eventually became a teacher.
As an African-American, he was forced to attend segregated schools, but he showed tremendous talent. He graduated from Houston’s Phillis Wheatley High School and began attending college. He attended Texas Southern University in Houston and graduated with a pharmacy degree in 1970.
Leland taught clinical pharmacy at Texas Southern for a year after graduation but remained deeply concerned with the fact that so many people lacked access to affordable medical care in the Houston area. He initiated a series of neighborhood campaigns to educate residents about their health care options and sponsored clinics.
He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972, becoming one of the first African-Americans to serve in the state legislature in nearly a century. In Austin, he continued his crusades, creating new programs to help lower costs of medicine to the poor and elderly. In 1978, U. S. Representative Barbara Jordan decided not to run for re-election. Leland jumped at the chance to run for her seat in Congress. That fall, he was elected to the first of six terms in the United States House of Representatives.
As a member of Congress, he continued to visit homeless shelters and food pantries, working to alleviate the continuing problems of poverty. He helped establish the National Commission on Infant Mortality as well as programs to help the homeless.
By 1983, Ethiopia and Sudan were in the unrelenting grip of a horrible famine that left upwards of one million dead by 1986. The world became determined to do something to alleviate the suffering. Leland, troubled by the situation in Africa and coupled with his longstanding concerns for the poor in the United States, helped establish the House Select Committee on Hunger in 1984 to develop strategies for these crises. Leland was named chairman of this committee and immediately convened widely-publicized hearings on the problems of malnutrition and starvation. He led a congressional committee to Africa to win support for an $800 million aid package for the starving region.
He returned to Ethiopia several more times to combat the famine and worked with world leaders to raise awareness and aid for the hungry around the globe.
In 1989, Leland embarked on another trip to Ethiopia in his fight against hunger. He arrived in Africa on August 7, but as his plane crossed into Ethiopia, the craft encountered dangerous storms and disappeared. For days, the fates of Leland and his compatriots were unknown. Eighteen aircraft participated in the search, scanning the mountains of western Ethiopia in stormy weather. On August 13, the worst fears were confirmed, and the wreckage of the plane was found. All sixteen people aboard died instantly.
The shock of Leland’s death touched the nation. His distraught friend, Congressman Ron Dellums, stated, “Their deaths are a collective loss to all humanity.”
Leland was praised for his courage and determination to combat hunger around the world. The federal government has since renamed one of its buildings in Houston after him. In 2010, the Houston Independent School District named a new special preparatory school for disadvantaged young men after him.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.