Birmingham, Civil Rights and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Race
By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
Alabama’s Jefferson County’s largest city is Birmingham and Sheriff Mike Hale and his family share a long history with the county and city whose name is forever linked with the struggle to gain civil rights in this country.
As Jefferson County’s current sheriff, Hale, a Republican, who is seeking reelection, was recognized as “Crime Stopper of the Year” and has been credited with creating a new crime-fighting unit designed to to crack down on criminals throughout the county.
However, Sgt. Mark Pettway, a Democrat opposing Hale on the Nov. 6 ballot, sees the environment differently than his current boss.
“The department, until last year, was under a federal consent decree because of its unfair hiring and promotion practices and I’ve seen a lot of that during my tenure here,” said Pettway, who has worked in the County Sheriff’s Department for 18 years.
The consent decree was issued as part of a 1970s-era consolidated lawsuit that alleged the County, City of Birmingham, Sheriff’s Department, and the Personnel Board of Jefferson County discriminated against Blacks and women in their hiring and promotions.
Birmingham and the Jefferson County Personnel Board, which provides employment services for the county and cities, were ultimately released from their decrees.
Last year a U.S. District Judge finally released the Sheriff’s Department from the decree.
“Still,” Pettway said, “not much has changed,” which is the primary reasons he’s campaigning for election as Sheriff. If elected, Pettway will be the first African American sheriff in Jefferson County history.
“It didn’t get any better. We’re still not where we should be and after watching other activists in action, I decided it was time for me to rise up and do something,” Pettway said.
“That Birmingham, Alabama still resembles in some ways its racist history should be alarming to residents and voters,” Pettway said.
In fact, the ties that bind the current sheriff to the Civil Rights era undeniable. Hale’s uncle, Melvin Bailey, was also a Jefferson County sheriff from 1963 to 1996.
Bailey was the lead law enforcement official when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed in 1963 and history will always remember him as the last sheriff to jail Civil Rights Leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was during Bailey’s tenure that the federal government took over the Sheriff’s Department.
Hale transferred to the Sheriff’s Department under his uncle’s command in 1976 and rose to the rank of captain, eventually commanding every division within the department. He first won election in 1998 and has been re-elected four times.
“I grew up here. This is the [same] place where they turned the dogs on Black people and used the hoses on them,” Pettway said.
“This is a very important and historical election and it’s an opportunity for change. It’s a chance for us to have a seat at the table where we can make those changes and where the hiring practices can be better for people of color and for women and where a [minority] can say, ‘hey, I can be Sheriff one day, too.’”
A lifelong Jefferson County resident, Pettway grew up in a working-class neighborhood not far from Birmingham’s Legion Field Stadium.
The son of the late Retired Army Sgt. First Class Officer Ed Pettway, and Jefferson County School Teacher Camilla Satisfield, Pettway said he began to realize his potential as his parents provided him with something far greater than material wealth.
Specifically, they instilled in him strong moral principles, a robust work ethic and a burning desire to excel. Given his ability to implement this rare yet useful combination of gifts, many said it’s no surprise he learned the value of hard work and determination at an early age.
Pettway began his professional career in 1991 at the Birmingham Police Department, where he served as a Correctional Specialist. In 1993, he joined the Fairfield Police Department as a police officer, where he helped to strengthen the law enforcement system by responding to calls, making arrests, issuing citations, and testifying in court cases.
In 1999, he joined the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy. In 2008, he was promoted to detective and has earned a number of commendations from Hale.
He said community policing and criminal justice reform top his agenda.
“We have to bridge the gap right now between law enforcement and the community. Right now, there’s no trust and we need body cameras and dashboard cameras and, under my watch, we will be transparent,” Pettway said.
“I will implement accountability and the community will know their officers. The officers will get out of their cars and the community will know them by their names,” he said.
Pettway said the revolving doors of prison must stop.
“We don’t want to send people home the same way they came in. We want to educate them and no more of people profiting from others going to jail.” Pettway said.
“We have to stop the privatization of prions and start teaching inmates skills that are necessary to become employed when they get out.”
Under his guidance, Pettway said the entire Sheriff’s Department will improve on communicating with the public. “If I can communicate my thoughts and ideas to anybody and I can get them to buy into what I’m trying to, then there’s progress. Good communication skills are needed to build influence and get things done,” he said.
Pettway also noted that he’s anxious for election day.
“A lot of eyes will be on the south. We will be heavily watched with Stacey Abrams running in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida,” he said.
“Jefferson County is another one of those places where people will have their eyes on. This is where history has been made. It’s where a lot happened during the Civil Rights era. Making history is always good but its more than making history, we want to bring much-needed change to an area that needs change and it’s sad that we’re still talking about making history.
“We want people to know that we are changing down here.”