Attorney A. Dwight Pettit would much rather be working on his golf game. After all, he is 68-years-old, and has earned enough money to ease into retirement and enjoy the fruits of more than four decades defending and representing clients, particularly those whose civil rights have been violated.
However, the longtime attorney has seen his case load explode over the past decade, mostly because of civil and human rights violations which he says are being carried out under the color of law, which happens to be the title of his new book. The autobiography details several monumental legal victories he has secured including a landmark 1972 case in which Pettit represented his father.
“My father and I had been involved early on, in the civil rights movement when we moved to the Baltimore area and I attended Aberdeen High School,” Pettit said.
Pettit’s father, George Pettit, initiated a lawsuit against Harford County school officials, forcing the integration of the all-white Aberdeen High School.
Pettit, represented by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall won his suit and his son gained admission to Aberdeen High and graduated in 1963.
“When my father fought for civil rights, he was a black engineer and was retaliated against in a horrible manner,” Pettit said. “He was denied promotions and when he came to work, his supervisors and co-workers would hang rebel flags in his office and he was referred to as, ‘boy.’”
Dwight Pettit argued his father’s case in the U.S. Court of Claims and successfully established a standard of proof for back-pay awards in discrimination cases.
The case became the first in the nation to award a federal employee retroactive pay for past discrimination, something that pre-dated and paved the way for many equal opportunity laws, including affirmative action.
As detailed in his new book, “Under Color of Law,” Pettit received assistance from the famed Washington, D.C., firm, Covington & Burling who assigned the case to attorney Paul Tagliabue, who later became commissioner of the National Football League.
His team of lawyers also included Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first African American woman to practice law in Maryland, and Jack Greenberg, who litigated the landmark Brown vs. Board Education case that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine in America.
Pettit, who in 2004 won the largest constitutional rights verdict in Maryland history, has handled some of the highest profile criminal and civil cases in the state.
He says that his practice has boomed over the years because of police brutality and excessive force cases.
“That’s keeping me in business and what’s happening is that [authorities] are doing these things under the color of law,” Pettit said. “We have to be careful, especially as African Americans, We have to be apprehensive about not going backward especially when you look at what’s happened with affirmative action, voter registration laws, and the draconian prison sentences young black men are receiving and packing the prisons, which are now just a business.”
“All of these things are being done under the color of law,” he continued.
Married for 46 years to his wife, Barbara, Pettit and his family migrated from Rutherfordton, N.C. to Baltimore in the 1950s. He attended Howard University from 1963 until 1967, where he earned a bachelor’s of arts degree. After graduating from Howard, Pettit began his career as a trial attorney for the Small Business Administration (SBA) under President Richard Nixon.
President Jimmy Carter, whom Pettit still counts as a close friend, appointed Pettit to the seat of state attorney general in Maryland but senators blocked the appointment without ever detailing why.
Pettit said he is using his new book to recognize how far the nation has come, and how far it still has to go.
“We must ensure that all are aware of the dangerous pitfalls and dark caverns that still exist in our society,” Pettit said. “This is a young nation, where obstacles and entrenchment can easily be resurrected during the fog of complacency created by past accomplishments.”