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Civil rights attorney challenges students to 'save' America

Hannah Dellinger
Frederick News Post

A civil rights attorney who has won landmark cases in the U.S. Supreme Court told a crowd of Mount St. Mary’s University students on Wednesday night that Martin Luther King Jr. would be “very disappointed and hurt” by the current state of the nation.

a.-dwight-pettit.jpg“All the great things he did have been reversed or abandoned,” A. Dwight Pettit said in a speech reflecting on the 50 years since King was assassinated. “He would be disappointed to see the last 50 years, where we as a community accepted [the] status quo while the right-wing organizations of this nation were still plotting and scheming to turn back the clock.”

Pettit told the students he vividly remembers learning about King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, as a law student at Howard University. He recalls seeing the smoke rising on the D.C. horizon as rioting ensued soon after word spread that the civil rights leader had been killed. Pettit recalls his school dispatching him and other students to the streets with black armbands to try to keep the peace.

“Like the whole nation, I was severely shaken,” Pettit told the students. “As I looked out into the streets of D.C., I began to ask, ‘Where is America today?’ Fifty years later, I still ask that same question. The sad part about it is that the answers are not too comfortable.”

Rebecca Lee, a freshman at Mount St. Mary’s who hopes to become a lawyer herself, said Pettit’s speech inspired her to get more involved as an activist.

“Before the [2016 presidential] election, everything seemed fine,” she said. “But now, seeing that this president is so straightforward about wanting to take away certain things, it makes me want to fight for a better America.”

Pettit was represented by Thurgood Marshall in 1958 when his father sued Harford County Public Schools to integrate its high schools. In 1971, when Pettit was 27, he litigated and won his first private case representing his father in an employment discrimination suit in the Supreme Court. The same year, Pettit sued Maryland for discrimination in its bar examinations, which resulted in changes in testing practices in multiple states.

Pettit has litigated over 50 police force cases, and in 2004, he won Brown v. Rodney Price, which had the highest verdict payout in a police force case in the U.S.

The lawyer also worked in politics, serving as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter, holding various positions with the National Democratic Party and working as a campaign chairman for the Rev. Jesse Jackson when he ran for president.

Pettit said King’s leadership helped the nation achieve change, but in the following years the body politic decided that “the battle” had been won and was over. He said the nation has gone back on its promises of the civil rights era, citing the 2013 Supreme Court case that rolled back portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Solutions to the problems that King championed, such as the lack of funding for urban education, the systematic segregation of cities, mass incarceration and lack of economic opportunity for people of color are still elusive, Pettit said.

“We are now at a crossroads, fighting for the very soul of America,” he said. “You are the young folks that will save this cherished nation called America.”

Pettit said he is inspired by the activists fighting for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and people of color. But he said those groups must band together if they want to effect real change.

The lawyer said the upcoming elections in June and November are a “tremendous opportunity to turn this country around.” He said if voter participation doesn’t increase in 2018, the country will start a backslide that will not stop.

“As the young people say in this new movement, we have to stay ‘woke,’” Pettit said.

Alana Cherry, a senior at Mount St. Mary’s who helped organize the event, asked Pettit how activists can avoid being reactive and look proactively toward the future.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s proactive or reactionary,” Pettit said. “There has to be action, period.”

Photo courtesy of Hannah Dellinger.

Hannah Dellinger
Frederick News Post