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This Day in History – August 8, 1989

Congressman George Thomas “Mickey” Leland dies in a plane crash near Ethiopia

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On this day in 1989, Congressman George Thomas “Mickey” Leland, members of his congressional staff, and State Department officials die in a plane crash near Gambella, Ethiopia.

George Thomas “Mickey” Leland was an anti-poverty activist who later became a congressman from the Texas 18th District and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was a Democrat.

In 1972, Texas for the first time allowed its State House of Representatives and Senate seats to be elected from single-member districts. Soon after the decision, five minority candidates — dubbed the “People’s Five”– including eventual winners Leland, Craig Washington and Benny Reyes ran for district seats in the Texas House of Representatives.  Although Barbara Jordan had been a state senator, had not seen any African-American state representatives since Reconstruction.

Re-elected in 1974 and again in 1976, Leland served three two-year terms in the Texas House of Representatives, representing the 88th District and while in Austin, he became famous for being a staunch advocate of health care rights for poor Texans.

He was responsible for the passage of legislation that provided low-income consumers with access to affordable generic drugs and supported the creation of health care access through Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO’s).

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After six years in the Texas State Legislature, Leland was elected to the United States House of Representatives in November 1978 to represent Texas’ 18th District and was re-elected easily in 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986 and again in 1988 to six two-year terms, serving until his death.

Leland was an active advocate on hunger and public health issues. In 1984 Leland established the select congressional committee on Hunger and initiated several programs designed to assuage the famine crises that plagued Ethiopia and Sudan through much of the 1980s. Leland pioneered many Afro-centric cultural norms in Washington which included wearing a dashiki and African style hats.

As he visited soup kitchens and makeshift shelters, he became increasingly concerned about the hungry and homeless. The work for which he was always best remembered began when Leland co-authored legislation with U.S. Rep. Ben Gilman (R-New York State) in establishing the House Select Committee on Hunger. U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Massachusetts) named Leland chairman when enacted in 1984. The Select Committee’s mandate was to “conduct a continuing, comprehensive study and review of the problems of hunger and malnutrition.”

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