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  • Charles Greene

Post #10 Wait Your Turn: My Conversation with Marvin Pettus

During a recent Big Black Man Project presentation to the Four Rivers Charter School, a wise student asked, “Do the interview subjects for the Project all have to represent the same point of view or political stance?” I always love when students feel empowered to ask good tough questions. Before responding, I immediately thought of one of the newest members of the Big Black Man Project family, Marvin Pettus. I met Marvin through the Project’s relationship with Curtis Wilson, the interviewee from Post #7. As is often the case during the interviews, I am quickly amazed by the breadth of the tapestry that makes up the Black American experience. Because of our age and ethnicity alone, so much of our background and values are in alignment. At the same time, this is one of the first interviews that clearly states a political point of view with which I have personally not agreed. That is one of the biggest reasons that I am glad to have made Marvin Pettus’s acquaintance.


Much like the student who was insightful enough to ask me a tough question regarding Big Black Man Project interviewee selection, Marvin Pettus is not afraid to ask tough questions. He requires accountability from those responsible for delivering the answers. The world always needs more people willing to make demands of the communities in which we live and have expectations that those in power will improve the world around them. In this issue of the Big Black Man Project, Marvin Pettus and I discuss spirituality, business, politics, and the need to stop waiting for change.


As always, thank you for your time.

Charles Greene __________________________________________________________________________



Marvin Keith Pettus
Marvin Keith Pettus

Interviewee: Marvin Keith Pettus.

Age: 59.

Place of birth: South Hill, Virginia.

Current Location: West Orange, New Jersey.

Occupation: Partner in the law firms Pettus & Williams and Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer. Interviewer: Charles L. Greene II, Executive Director, Big Black Man Project CLGII: I wonder if you could describe your reason for being and if there is a specific story or anecdote in your life that is illustrative of that reason?


MP: Interesting. I think my reason for being is to enjoy family. I don’t really mean to have fun with family. I mean to have family, to encourage family, and to move family forward. I think that is why we are all here. I believe that it is critical to understand what’s essential in life and what’s not so important. And those things change with age. Of course, the most important thing to want is a candy bar at the beginning of life. And by the time you reach 59 like I am now, you know that the most important thing in your life could be your grandson, granddaughter, and the brighter life they have through your efforts and through what you’ve done.

Pettus Family Photo. 25th wedding anniversary on the Outer Banks Beach
Pettus Family Photo. 25th wedding anniversary in the Outer Banks

The first defining moment for me was the birth of my daughter. I remember the first time she looked up and was able to say the word, “Daddy.” I was like, “Oh, okay. All right. My life just changed.” The second was the birth of my grandson. He calls me “Pop Pop.” It’s the same sort of scenario, where you hear this little voice say, “Pop-Pop,” and he can get anything he wants from me (laughs).


CLGII: (laughs). It’s funny how that generation gap matters. I think about my relationship with my dad. We have always had a great relationship, yet there were definitely walls and things that I couldn’t get away with. My daughter can call him and do anything, say anything, and ask for anything. I’m thinking, “That really isn’t the same guy. He looks like him. He sounds a lot like him. It is not the same guy.”


MP: I want to explain because we certainly treat the grandson much differently than we treated her when we were young, and she was a child. I think that’s what grandparents are supposed to do. And the wonderful thing about being a grandparent is you give them back. You say, “Okay. It’s done. Time for you to go home. Bye-bye.” (Laughs).


That’s what is fantastic about being a grandparent. And as far as family, it’s that whole point that we include family, that this is what this life is about: Life on this planet is about family. My mom just passed away in September. She was 85.


CLGII: I’m sorry to hear that.


MP: Thank you. And to underscore how important it was, one, she never lived in a nursing home; two, she always had one of her children with her or caring for her at all times; and, three, she did not want for anything because she had children. We made sure that she did not want for anything. That’s important.


My father, who, on the 23rd of January, turned 85 himself, is living independently. He’s good, but he keeps calling me, wanting to make sure that his great-great-grandchildren are taken care of in his will. And, again, it reinforces to me that the importance of life on this planet is family. Everything else will come and go, but really, you are born into one family. We need to nurture one another and care for one another and forgive one another and move on.


CLGII: I’m sure you’ve thought about this, but I wonder if you could describe your relationship with America?


MP: First, let me say that I think of myself as American, not necessarily Afro-American, a Black American, or anything like that. Yes, I do use those terms, though I’m not stringent and strict in that manner. First and foremost, I was born here. I’m as American as apple pie. I have been across the nation, north, south, east, to west, as an American.


My relationship with America is colored by American history. It’s colored by the expectations that others have of me and those who look like me. So it’s a love-hate relationship. You love America and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, and you hate America because they keep shooting young black men.

America also has these factions that want to have America be all white, or all purple, or all polka dot, or whatever. I think Gil Scott-Heron said best, “America is the international Jekyll and Hyde. It sneaks up on you but rarely surprises.” It’s the international Jekyll and Hyde because we in America could denounce our deep, deep, deep, humanitarian violations across the world and get up on our high horse and talk about how things have gone wrong. But we don’t talk about the Capitol on January 6th. We don’t talk about that. America says those were just misguided good people. And they certainly weren’t terrorists. Now, you know, if it had been Black Lives Matter, there would’ve been 50 or so dead by the time that day was over.

So, my relationship with America is love-hate, and I love America. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, and I think of myself as an American. But I think America has to change its mindset and think of me as an equal American. Once it does that, we’re good. But we’re a long way from there.

We always have to think twice about things. We always have to be open and cautious. We have to do those things that our parents taught us to keep ourselves and our family safe. We have to remember 10 o’clock, 2 o’clock when the officer approaches your car. We have to remember no sudden moves. Don’t reach for anything until that officer says you can reach for that. We have to remember. We can’t just walk up to an officer and start yelling in his or her face without having some repercussions that would not have happened to someone who is not Black. It is a love-hate relationship, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

CLGII: I’ve asked that question of nearly everyone I’ve interviewed. The thing that people forget or don’t realize about black people is that we are uncharacteristically patriotic. We are not blindly patriotic, but really appreciative of this country and living in this country. Interviewing my dad about his father and his uncles’ choice to go off to war and how those men had to come back and face horrific conditions because the country didn’t want to love them back. I’m amazed that we are two generations, three generations later, and we are still in the same spot. I think that is what we saw on January 6th. People were just outraged. I don’t think they literally meant that the election was stolen through any particular shenanigans. I think what they really meant was, “How could black people rise up in all of these different places and vote such that we couldn’t have the outcome we wanted?”


MP: Turning to the election, I believe that around 74 million people voted for Donald Trump for president. I do not believe that all 74 million of those people would have stormed the Capitol on January 6th. I do not believe that all 74 million of those people are misguided white folks. I do not believe that all 74 million are bad people. I don’t believe that. People could make bad choices throughout their life and still can be decent, good people.

But I do believe that his election and his administration emboldened the under crust of white America. They decided that they would crawl out from under the rocks under which they were hiding and try to make a movement out of it. And I think they were relatively successful until the end when he abandoned them. He basically said, “Bye. Do whatever it is y’all wanna do. I’m out of here.”

I also think that the social media platforms he depended on, when they withdrew his power, left that faction running around like a body without a head. Parler is down (at the time the interview was conducted). Some other websites are down. He’s not back yet. Some of the articles that I’ve read suggest QAnon is in disarray. I don’t think it will stay that way, but I do think that these people are beginning to crawl back under the rocks until the next psycho comes along.

CLGII: That is the thing that scares me. Trump was definitely playing from the autocrat playbook. But he was doing it as an incompetent. Those of us who have lived on the East Coast, particularly New York City, know that he has not successfully run any business other than his brand name. His organizations crumble, and fall apart, go bankrupt, and disappear. I fear that the next person who decides to fan the flames of racial and identity discord and run that autocrat playbook will be someone who understands how the actual levers of government work.


MP: That will be a terrible day for America. And unfortunately, it will have long-lasting effects on America. But right now, I don’t see someone getting that. We always have these sorts of discussions in our lives. We had eight years of Barack Obama being president, and sometimes you move eight steps forward and two steps back- then three more steps forward and two steps back. I think our three steps forward were Barack Obama. Our two steps back are Trump. Let me just share this with you. But for Trump, if there had been another president in the ilk of Barack Obama, no matter what color he or she had been, we would not have had a global Black Lives Movement. We would not have had the organization of young folks fighting anti-Semitism and racism. We would’ve had the killings by police officers, and we would’ve had George Floyd, but without the impact on America, on the corporate structure of America, and globally we would not have been the same.


There would not be a call for diverse hiring, and chief diversity officers, and diversity training. It just never would have happened. We would have been in the slow-results situation that people in power always create: “Hey, it’s gonna happen. We’re gonna work on it. It’s gonna happen. Just take your time. Be patient. We’re getting there. I understand.”


Let’s take, for example, what some of the Young Republicans are talking about in regards to Democratic-held cities. Let’s use two; for instance, Detroit and Baltimore are cities with challenges. Democrats have held them for years. Financially, they are in trouble. Structurally and infrastructure-wise, they’re in trouble. Yes, there are nice portions of each city, like anywhere else in the United States. But by and large, these cities need a lot of help, a lot of restructuring, and a lot of infrastructure work.


Crime and unemployment are high, and they’ve been in Democratic hands for years. Why is that? It is my opinion that you have people who are pulling the strings of power, saying, “Relax. We’ll take care of it. You’re next in line. We’re thinking about these things. We understand. We’re not racist. We understand.”

When did actual change happen? When did these companies put diverse people in office? When did they do something? It was in reaction to the flame lit by Trump that was also lit by the death of George Floyd. Without the shedding of blood, what is there?


More than at any other point since slavery people are being exposed. During the slavery period, we knew who they were (laughs). We knew the overseer and all those people. Because of Trump and all that we are talking about, these people are being fired left and right, investigated, identified, exposed, and terminated. And as far as January 6th goes, prosecuted, though not to the extent that satisfies me. I recently read an article about someone shoplifting. He spent three years on Rikers Island. This other person was released on his own recognizance as a result of January 6th because “he was a misguided Republican, led on by the president” What? If some dude spent three years for shoplifting? (laughs)


CLGII: Yeah. This leads me to my next question. Could you talk about how the last four years have impacted your view of the world?


MP: I am encouraged by the rest of the world and those governments that gave Trump pause, questioning him and the things that he did. I am also inspired because when Trump pulled out of these accords, and agreements, and treaties, and those sorts of things, the world did not stop. It said, “Okay. America, you’re out. But we’re going to continue doing this because it’s good for us or good for the planet. We’re going to keep going.”


I think there is a blessing and a curse because now we realize that we could have saved trillions of dollars if we had backed up a bit from being the world’s policeman and the self-anointed world’s greatest leader. I think we could have saved trillions of dollars that could have been spent on other things within our country.


I have reflected on all of that over the last four years. But as it relates to me and, say, the practice of law, tax-wise, it’s been great. Tax-wise, I saw a distinct increase in the amount of money that I could keep over the last four years. I think that that is also an area that many people don’t understand fully, and I mean American people, and just not African-American people. There are economic classes in America. Middle- to low-income economic classes lack the understanding that high socio-economic status groups possess, no matter their color.


I own a business. I could deduct the office equipment that I just bought. Ultimately the government pays for it because they get less money from me. This is Trump at his best. When he pays $700 in taxes, while someone who’s a nurse earning $90,000 pays five, six, seven times that in taxes, it’s because the nurse is working for someone else. There are no deductions. There is nothing to take advantage of.

Business-wise, it’s been okay because we are still a very litigious society, so we love to sue one another for all kinds of craziness, even minor craziness. Last year, because of the pandemic, courts shut down, and at least in New York, there was no filing of new cases for a while. Everybody stayed home. What did that mean? That meant no one was running into one another on the highway. No one ran over a person at the car park, right? No one was slipping and falling down flights of stairs or getting trapped in the escalator. Everybody was safe at home. I’m glad that everyone is safe, but it did affect a lot of the bottom line. It also taught us something, that some of us don’t need an entire floor in a posh office building in Manhattan to get the job done. Some of us could work from home and keep the billable hours where they are. We did not have to pay $20,000 a month for our office. We could’ve spent $10,000 a month for an office, with people rotating in and out. That’s possible too.

The last four years have had many lessons. And for me, one of the lessons is to reevaluate how we do business. Another lesson is always to keep a business. Even if I stop practicing law, I will start a business right away; otherwise, I don’t benefit from the tax codes. What makes America great? The capitalism of America, the democracy of America, and the people of America. We’re already great.

I also think we need to keep an eye on all politicians, Democrats, and Republicans because something needs to be done about our cities. And if one group doesn’t do it, try the other group, or try some combination. Politicians have to be held accountable quickly. And we have to stop staying, “Okay, I’ll wait.”


CLGII: What are the biggest challenges in your life, and why are they there?


MP: I don’t think I have one large challenge, but there are several challenges, and one of them is just to maintain and to create a legacy for my daughter and my grandson, and if there are any other grandchildren that come along. That has been a challenge, and earning has not been the challenge with that.


Maybe kids are different in Massachusetts and Ohio, but some of the kids in New Jersey of a certain age and a certain income level get this sense of entitlement. The challenge for me is to convince her with strong language (laughs) that she’s not entitled to any of this. “This is what I did. What are you going to do?” Some kids get it right away and do their own thing and follow up with their parents’ connections. I have a different kid. I would go to my kid and say, “The director of HR is looking for someone to do branding. All you need to do is contact them. Follow up, and then follow up once more.” Some kids would ignore that whole conversation. And then ask the parent for $500 because they don’t have any money. My kid is just beginning to lay down her own roots. And to her credit, I had nothing to do with her position now and her getting that position. I had nothing to do with it, but I’ve looked at it, and I look at what she tells me her salary is. I look at all the opportunities, and I just have to shake my head. It’s unbelievable to me. That has been a challenge. Hopefully, that’s over because she’s now straight, so I don’t get a call for $500.00 anymore.

Outside of that family challenge, the other challenge, of course, is making sure that in the law firm that we have, that we try to hang on to everybody. We didn’t furlough anyone. We didn’t lay anyone off. We didn’t do anything with our employees other than paying them. We didn’t reduce their salaries throughout the entire pandemic. I don’t know how many other law firms could say that.

Politically, there’s a challenge too. I think I may move over to the Independent box. For the past 20 years, I’ve been a resolute Republican, but I’m not a Trump Republican. I just wanted to point that out. I hate that guy. I’m not in his corner in any way, form, or fashion because I knew him from New York.

But if this party decides to continue how it’s going, I just can’t see being a part of it. So I will be an Independent.

CLGII: I think many people have predicted the divide of the Republican Party for the last 30 years. Each time it was incorrect. This time you see the split in the party much more clearly than you have in the past. And the division is really around the old-line Republicans, who we remember as fiscal conservatives, and the party’s desire to court certain elements because they don’t have the numbers. That has been problematic. Critical voices and strategists for what we consider the old-line Republican Party appear to have decided, “We can’t do this anymore.”


MP: Right, and smartly so. I would be interested in a party that, say, the Lincoln Project people decided they wanted. I would be interested in hearing more about that. I just can’t continue to be affiliated with a party that is going to embrace white supremacists. I won’t move to the Democratic Party because of what I mentioned about the inner cities and the continued rhetoric of, “Wait your turn.”

Classic Democratic Party stuff, classic. But let me share this. You didn’t ask, but let me just share this, and maybe it’ll shed some light on why I think in these terms. I was a registered Democrat for years, and I had been in law school. And then, I became active in the Democratic machine, Bar Association, and the Democratic Club.

I hung my shingle. I didn’t have a paycheck. I was looking for work. I’m giving cards out at Democratic events, and no one was paying me to do anything. Many people were asking me for favors, which I would do because what comes around goes around. But no one is paying me.

Marvin Pettus' father, and his father in law, Wes Yearwood  at Marvin's wedding.
Marvin Pettus' father, and his father in law, Wes Yearwood at Marvin's wedding.Marvin Pettus' father, and Wes Yearwood, his father in law at Marvin's wedding.

My wife’s father, of course, watched all of this. He invited me to a political Christmas party. And it was a political Christmas party for a friend of his. He said to me, “Have you got your cards?” I said, “Yes.” I had my cards ready. I just followed him around this particular party. He’s introducing me to one person after another. “Give him a card. Give her the card. Give them the card.” I’m giving out cards everywhere. It must’ve been 1996, maybe even 1995. And then, the next week or so, as this was a holiday, I started getting calls, “You’re Wes’ son-in-law, right? Can you do this?” I said, “Sure,” thinking that I would have to do another favor. And the question was always, “How much would that be?” I would tell them, and they would say, “Okay. I’ll send you that check tomorrow,” The last bit of business I got from that party was in 2002. I went to one party, and it was a Republican party. So I changed my affiliation. Because I went to this one party, I put food on the table, fed my daughter, paid my rent, and it allowed me to continue practicing law. But all that effort and time that I put with the other people got me nowhere and nothing. So I changed my party, and I’ve been a Republican ever since. And now I have hit a white supremacist wall.


CLGII: I wonder if you could just spend a couple of moments talking about your role models.


MP: I think the most significant role model in my life must be my father. At the beginning of my consciousness, my father does not appear, but he was there. He was working. He was a truck driver earning a truck driver’s wage. Now, why would Dad be a mentor? He is a mentor because he changed. And I can’t say I could pinpoint a time, or a situation, or some sort of circumstance that occurred, but he changed. Fast-forward to when he was 50 years old, and I was getting married. He had stopped drinking spirits, and he had stopped smoking. He was still driving trucks and the other things that he enjoyed. He enjoyed the race track. He enjoys going to the OTB. They used to call it Off-Track Betting, I think. He enjoyed that with his friends, one of whom was the pastor of the family church. They used to travel all around. He enjoyed that. That’s what he did. He would go down South, drop us off in Virginia or North Carolina, stay down there for two and a half to three weeks, and then come back and pick us up. He would arrange for my brother and me to work in a tobacco field and pull tobacco from sunup to sundown. And, of course, we were city boys, so we didn’t know what the heck we were doing. The other workers would have a whole row of tobacco for themselves, and the tractor would move at a certain pace. We had to keep up. My brother and I would share a row, and we still got left behind several times. But after two summers of picking, we could do a row by ourselves, keeping up with the tractor. What did that teach us? What it taught me was I don’t ever want to work that hard in life. Period! I’m going to stay my Black butt in school. I’m going to go to college, and I’m going to make sure that I don’t ever have to work that hard for a dollar again. It worked for my brother too. We went to the same high school. When he graduated, he was a salutatorian. When I graduated, I was valedictorian. I went to Syracuse University, and my brother wound up pastoring a church. He then went into the service, where he spent 23 years before retiring.


My Dad did this job for his boys, and I commend that. And through the process, he would also show up and do things because friends or relatives asked him to. When “your peoples”, yes plural, call,” you gotta go.” I used to mock him for that. I no longer mock him because I have found that if a family member or close friend calls and says,” help me,” I have to go. It’s what families do. He is the reason why I feel family is such an important thing.

Mentor number two is a judge named Ken Brown. He has since passed. Judge Brown and I met at one of those Democratic functions when I was a young lawyer and a Democrat. He would nurture all of the young lawyers, including myself. He would teach and invite us out to his chambers, talk about cases, and explain why he ruled one way or another. He would teach us about what the other lawyers did that wasn’t correct. Judge Brown and I didn’t know that our paths had crossed years earlier. As a young man, my father had hired another man to do some work. A lawsuit followed a car accident. The judge that heard this lawsuit was Ken Brown. I had never known that. Ken Brown chastised the two attorneys on the other side for trying to cheat my father out of his money because his van was totaled, and they didn’t want to pay for it. So Ken ordered these men too, “pay him his money.” He then invited my father up to his chambers. They had a good conversation. My dad was there in his chamber long before I was. Ken and I never shared this story.

I will be remiss if I don’t talk about Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker. Dr. Martin Luther King knew him as an administrative genius who was as young as King, maybe two or three years older than King, but extremely smart. He grew up in New Jersey. Wyatt Tee Walker was the administrative arm of SCLC and the movement. If there was a march, a meeting, a call, or a walk-out, he was the primary organizer of black people. The pictures from the Birmingham jail, you know that picture with King at the bars? Wyatt Tee Walker took it. There’s a second picture of Wyatt Tee Walker at the bars that King took. Wyatt Walker became the pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem. Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem became my church. And it was also where my wife and I became part of that ministry. We were ordained by Wyatt Walker and served under Wyatt Walker until his retirement.

Wyatt Walker always impressed me as someone who could stay in touch with ordinary people, the community folks, and taught that skill to many of us.

During one of the deacon meetings, I was sitting in the front. Wyatt was doing his Wyatt Walker thing when he looked down and said, “Johnson and Murphy’s, right?” I asked, “What?” He said, “Johnson and Murphy.” I said, “Yeah. Why?” He said, “You know, they don’t matter.” (laughs) When you visit the sick, when you are giving Communion to those who are shut-in, when you are walking with someone old, and they ask you to say a prayer, you have to say a prayer. You have to forget about what you have, who you are, what status you have. You are there to serve them. If they want you to pray, you pray. If they want you to get them a glass of water, you do.

He also taught us to remember, if you pray in a setting where there’s an audience, the hope is that the prayer you utter is already on the hearts of those who are listening, and you are just helping to feed God’s ear with their wishes, not yours. I learned that an invocation prayer is a prayer to invite the presence of God into this building. A morning prayer is a prayer of blessing and praise. And a benedictional prayer is a prayer of thanks for what he has done and a prayer to keep us safe until we meet again. He fed me spiritually in a way that no one else could.


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