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Under Color of Law

Under Color of Law

by A. Dwight Pettit

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Building on the backdrop of his involvement in three important civil-rights cases, author A. Dwight Pettit narrates his personal story from the 1940s to the present in Under Color of Law. A successful civil-rights, constitutional, and criminal lawyer, Pettit focuses on the meaning of these cases for himself, his family, and the nation.

As a direct legal


Building on the backdrop of his involvement in three important civil-rights cases, author A. Dwight Pettit narrates his personal story from the 1940s to the present in Under Color of Law. A successful civil-rights, constitutional, and criminal lawyer, Pettit focuses on the meaning of these cases for himself, his family, and the nation.

As a direct legal descendent and beneficiary of Brown v. Board of Education, Pettit shares its relevance to his education and to his career as a civil-rights lawyer. His memoir details a host of milestones, including an early childhood in the black community and a sudden transition into a tense, all-white world at Aberdeen High School where he was admitted by order of the U.S. District Court.
He recalls his time at Howard University as well as the major litigation and representation in which he was involved as a lawyer, focusing in particular on his father's case which involved the treatment, torment and retaliation his father experienced at his job for bringing his son's desegregation lawsuit to trial. Attorney Pettit's memoir also traces his involvement in politics, especially his intimate role in the Jimmy Carter 1976 presidential campaign and the Carter administration.

Providing insight into past and current civil-rights issues, Under Color of Law underscores the Pettit family's pursuit of justice in the context of the drive for equal rights for all.

"One of the most emotional, fascinating books I have read. ... From start to finish, this book will have you question law as we know it and ask, in terms of racism and prejudice in America, 'Has anything really changed?'"
-"Zinah" Mary Brown, CEO, Elocution Productions

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iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.83(d)

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iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 A. Dwight Pettit
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4620-5640-8


Role Models

My father's name is George David Pettit. My mother's name is Mildred Henry Louise Miller Pettit. My father's family came out of a place called Sylva, North Carolina, where they lived on top of a mountain. My paternal grandparents, Abraham and Nina Pettit had eleven children, ten boys and one girl. Although my father did not talk about my great-grandfather much to me, he was a man named Jim Crackcorn Pettit who was married to LouCindy Pettit, a full Cherokee Indian. The story was that Jim had fled North Carolina after shooting his white sharecropper. My great-grandfather obviously had a great influence on my father.

In the 1990s, I went to many funerals; all of those relatives seem to pass around the same time. My father passed in 1992. I am an only child, and my father and I were very, very close. By most standards, I would consider him a genius in mental aptitude. He was a brilliant man who taught engineering at North Carolina Central College. He and I had the unique experience of being in school together at A&T University (at that time A&T College, now North Carolina A&T State University). My dad's senior year at A&T was 1949, and I was among the first persons to graduate from A&T University's nursery school. I have a lovely picture sitting on my desk showing me holding his hand and wearing his graduation cap on my head. He was known as the man who carried his little boy with him wherever he went. Because my mother had many sisters and two brothers, and my father had mostly brothers and one sister, I had many role models of big, strong African American men. All of my father's brothers were athletes; most were big men. They were "the Pettit boys."

My father's baby brother, John, and I were very close. He went to A&T, as did his other siblings: Abraham, Argel, Joseph (known as JP), and Dorothy Mae. My grandfather was a Southern minister, and my grandmother raised the kids. Like many African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, my grandparents never went to college. So I found it unique that out of their family's eleven kids, six of them went to college, helping each other and pulling each other through. This was the first generation of higher education for my family. I would be the first Pettit to break the A&T tradition by attending Howard University.

Anyway, the men—in terms of role models—existed mostly on my father's side; on my mother's side, I had all of these additional mothers. I recall the unusual fact that on both sides of my family, neither my father nor my mother was the eldest, but on both sides I was the firstborn. That fact gave me a unique status. If I went someplace on my mother's side of the family, the aunts, especially, Emma, Irene, and Florence, would always make over me. I was everybody's baby, everybody's young man. Being the oldest and firstborn on my father's side, I was the one they taunted, played with, athletically sparred with, and literally hung out and socialized with. This was especially true of my father's baby brother, John. When he passed, it was a very tragic loss. They all were tragic, but because I was an only child, John was the closest person I had to a brother. In so many ways, we were so much alike.

Even though he was not the eldest, my father, George David Pettit, was really the leader of the family. Whenever there were decisions that had to be made, the brothers came to my father's house. Now, it could be argued this was because my father had moved to Aberdeen in 1958, which meant we were located in the middle ground between Baltimore City and Philadelphia, the two cities where most of the brothers lived. One other brother had moved to Newport News, Virginia, and Joseph and Dorothy Mae stayed in North Carolina.

My uncles would later go on to become executives, entrepreneurs, teachers, a firefighter, a longshoreman, government employees, etc. Of the eleven children, none would go to jail or even be in any serious trouble except Argel. When Argel went into the Baltimore City Fire Department, he was set up in a sex-charge scandal while he was involved in a civil-rights action to secure promotional opportunities for blacks. He was always a step behind his big brother (my father) George, in his civil-rights activism. The establishment was always waiting for him. I think that matter was resolved when he resigned from the fire department. Nevertheless, all of these strong black men and women would live to be outstanding citizens, including my mother's sisters and at least one of two brothers, Lonnie Miller. He is the father of Larry Miller, who is the current president of NIKE's Jordan Brand and was the former president of the Portland Trailblazers.

Not only were these men outstanding citizens, but they were also distinguished in their military service. Ray was killed in Europe during World War II; my father survived the bombing in England. Argel and Willard were in the Navy; Donald was an Army paratrooper in Korea; Abraham was in the Army Air Corp as a mechanic; John, of course, was in the US Marine Corps with the shore patrol. What a lineup.

To some, my father would be what they called "a bad nigger." That was the term used in black novels, history, and folklore, and reserved for certain African American males who were somewhat rebellious. In reality, he was just a very proud, defiant, and ambitious black man who had no fear of anything that I ever perceived. His arrogance and his brilliance were almost to the point of belligerence. The belligerence probably built up because of the racist environment of this nation. It smoldered and carried over to other things because of the frustration of being a brilliant African American who the Southern white community, later the white community in general, would attempt to suppress. Because of his brilliance and the fact that they would not or could not accept a black person who was so far and above the accepted norm, he developed a degree of arrogance. This was something my father struggled with all of his life, starting in childhood.

My grandmother, my father's mother, was a very dark-complexioned woman, whereas my grandfather was a very light-skinned black man. Although he had African American features, my grandfather looked like an old white man, but you could still tell he was African American. They lived on the top of a mountain next to the Cherokee Indian reservation, and like many African Americans, we have Indian blood through my great-grandmother. My uncle Esses used to tell me, "Boy, you look just like a big old Cherokee. The older you get, the more you look like a big old Cherokee." Well, I never understood that because I thought all Indians looked a certain way. As seen on television, they were reddish-brown people, slender, with big noses. To me, I always thought I looked like my mother: sort of round-faced with light complexion and thick lips. However, a few years ago, I did see a historical special on the Cherokee and observed that the Cherokee are reddish people, light complexioned overall with big faces; they are big in their upper body, as I am. I watched how they left North Carolina and resettled and how they went to the eastern schools and tried to assimilate into white culture. These people did sort of fit my physical characteristics as described to me by my uncle. Maybe my appearance did not come entirely from my mother, as I thought, but more from my father's Cherokee heritage.

Most of the men on my father's side are big men. I am six foot two inches and approximately 250 pounds, and my father was about six foot one inch and 190 pounds. He was considered a large man in the 1940s and 1950s. Because of this, and his aforementioned personality, my father was considered a badass, a rebel. The family would always tell "George stories," as I call them. A typical George story told how, when he was a teen, an older man took his crutches and threw them and him in the river, and my father came back months or years later while that man was picking on some kids playing a marble game. My father allegedly put a knife in the man's stomach and almost cut him in half. The man never saw what hit him, and nobody ever told. There have always been these George stories about how treacherous George was and about his legendary temper. That had a pronounced effect on me, because I grew up with this man and witnessed this violence and his violent personality throughout my childhood.

My mother and father were together until he died in 1992. However, I must write that my childhood was very, very tumultuous. My father was a strong disciplinarian. He always demanded that I had chores and responsibilities. The chores, in my opinion, got more ridiculous as I got older, to a point in my late teens where they actually caused me to look forward to leaving home and going away to college. He was such a disciplinarian regarding responsibilities that I was not spoiled in my behavior in any way. I might have been spoiled materialistically though. I had everything I wanted as a kid. In our neighborhood, I always had the biggest and newest bike; I had the best of anything he could give or make.

Many of the things I had, though, were due to the values my father instilled in me. For example, I bought my first rifle when I was five years old, and I did that by selling Cloverine Salve. Cloverine Salve was a cure-all product in those days. You spread it on, and it cured all. At the time I was living in Dundalk, Maryland, before we moved to Turner Station, Maryland. I saw a magazine ad saying I could get different gifts by selling the salve. Cloverine Salve came twelve cans to a canister. The company also offered religious pictures, so when someone bought a five-cent can of Cloverine Salve, they would get a free religious picture: Jesus, the Last Supper, or what have you. As I accumulated enough sales, I could either keep a percentage of the money or transfer the money to the company and receive a gift. The gift that I chose was a .22-caliber rifle that, of course, my father allowed me to have. That was just the beginning of my business operations. I had different businesses. He instilled a sense of responsibility in me in terms of always having something to do, always having a cash flow, and always having some money. My father also encouraged and helped my mother to complete beauty school and set up her hair-care business.

I have my father's combative instinct, his defiance, and his arrogance—but not quite his temper. My tolerance to stay the course, my survivability, and my ability to reinvent myself in many aspects of my career are attributes received from my mother. Nevertheless, the volatility and the aggressiveness demonstrated by my actions as a person, an attorney, and a politician came from my father. This has had a negative effect as well as positive one: negative in terms of politics but positive in terms of my becoming a trial lawyer.

There are many examples of Dad's temper. Dad owned a restaurant and bar with my Uncle Argel. The bar was called the South Side Tavern, and it was located in Greensboro, North Carolina. John, the baby boy, was in and out of there too, although I remember that most of the time my father and Argel were running the operation by night while they were in college by day. I was allowed to wait tables and serve beer. I could identify different types of beers at the age of four. One night, I spilled some beer on a woman's white dress, and my father whipped my butt. That retired my bartender aspirations.

As a child, it seemed to me that every weekend my father would put somebody out of his bar—somebody who was fighting, somebody who was going to beat his woman or wife, somebody who was not going to pay his bill, or somebody who just got drunk. I don't remember him throwing anyone out of the door, although I am sure he did. However, the bar had a big plateglass window, and I remember him throwing somebody through that plateglass window every weekend. I would always say to myself, Why doesn't he just open the door and save himself the expense of fixing this window every weekend? I am not sure if it was actually every weekend, but it seemed as if somebody was going through that window on a weekly basis. And then there was whatever took place outside. Fighting or shooting or whatever other disturbance, my father would be in the middle of it. He just had that type of volatile temper.

My father's nickname on the streets was "TNT." I saw him do things that were very unreasonable for the time. Back in the early 1950s, over a traffic dispute, I saw him pull out a tire iron on a white man in Highlandtown. Now for people who do not know about Baltimore City, Highlandtown in the 1950s was totally redneck and generally still is today. What my father did in Highlandtown in those times was considered highly questionable. My father was a light-brown man with straight black hair, large lips, and a large Indian-type nose, but definite African American features. There was no mistaking that he was a black man. Of course, a white police officer arrived, and Dad argued with him. My cousin Shirley Sumpter was in the car with me, and we just looked at each other. I do not remember him backing down from anybody.

I clearly recall the times the police brought him home for being in a fight. One night, he came home, and all or most of the fingers on his right hand were broken. He had hit a man who had done something wrong or said something to him, and we had to wait for several days to determine whether the man, who was in a coma, would live. Until then, the police could not determine if my father was going to be charged with some type of homicide. I saw him on one occasion pull a man out of his house because he had hit my dog with his car and failed to stop. Now, we are talking about a man who was, at that time, a distinguished professional government employee, an electrical engineer. However, he had a tremendous temper, and alcohol did not help.

Years later, friends of mine like Marcellus Jackson, James (Biddy) Woods (who would later coin my commercial slogan, "If you need me, call me"), and others would tell me elaborate stories about my father. For example, how he would frequent the Sphinx Club and always do something that would eventually cause the owner to ask him to leave.

Marcellus Jackson used to tell this exaggerated story about my father. He said that my dad would walk into a nightclub or a bar and sit down, wearing his suit and tie. After his first drink, he would say to whomever was sitting beside him, "Yep, I'm George Pettit. I'm educated, I have a college degree, and I am smart." Then he would order a second drink. (He always drank his whisky straight.) By the third drink, he would say, "Yes, I'm brilliant. I write books, and I do [this], and I do [the other]." After he had his third or fourth Old Crow, he would take off his jacket and say, "And the rest of y'all in here are stupid." That's a word I distinctly remember as one of his favorite words. The story continued that after about the fourth or fifth drink (because he started to get high quickly), he would roll up his sleeves and say, "And I'm the baddest son of a bitch in here." For purposes of humor, my father's actions were always exaggerated in this story. This was an extreme example of my father's personality—the defining personality that my mother was strong enough to deal with. He had a volatile and quick-changing personality though. If he had been drinking, we never knew who he was going to be upon his arrival home.

My mother was tremendously strong, often indicating she was leaving my father, only to return, saying she was coming back or staying because of me. It never made much sense to me, because as much as I loved him, I never understood her ability to make the sacrifices she made. I could not understand how anybody could humanly allow himself or herself to exist in that type of atmosphere, even for the love of another human being, in this case a child.

Having said that, reflecting on the other side of the coin that was my father, I believe that he loved me more than life itself, and I loved him dearly. My father was always in the extremes in what he did. There was very little middle ground. Even with my children. He loved my children to pieces, and my children loved him to pieces. In fact, he would become the perfect grandfather. My kids made a pact that whichever one had a child first would name their first child after "Papa." My grandbaby, my daughter's child, is now fifteen and she was almost named George David, but instead her name is Georgia David Miguel Pettit (Miguel being the name of her father). We might end up with two George namesakes, considering my son still might do the same thing.

Even though I have criticized my father to some extent, no son could have had a more devoted father. It did not matter what I was involved in, he was involved in it too. I was exposed to things that other kids in the inner city could only think about. I am talking about before and after we got out of Turner Station and moved to Aberdeen. While still in Turner Station, my dad was scoutmaster, and he was advisor to the Day Village Boy's Club. He took all the kids camping, and he held neighborhood-cleanup crab feast. I could hunt and shoot at five years old. We hunted squirrels, deer, rabbit, quail, and possum. We lived in the woods. We would go out, catch fish, and cook them on the riverbank.

Excerpted from UNDER COLOR OF LAW by A. DWIGHT PETTIT. Copyright © 2013 A. Dwight Pettit. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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