Wilson native, Sheriff Clee Atkinson Jr, was destined for a life of service from a very young age. As the third of six boys, raised by his paternal grandparents; God, service and hard work were the cornerstones of his upbringing. Today, Sheriff Atkinson is the personification of everything his grandparents instilled in him in his role as Sheriff of Edgecombe County.
Sheriff Atkinson’s first stint in an official role of service began as a freshman at Fike High School. There he served as class president in addition to being a top athlete in multiple sports. As a student-athlete, football taught him the value of teamwork while being class president taught him the value of being a good person. He recalls people around him saying, “You’re the guy we want to follow” when he ran for president his freshman year. An honor he held all four years. According to Atkinson, “When I finally recognized as a junior in high school that people saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself; that forced me to push just a little bit harder. That was a big step in my leadership process.” Those athletic and social experiences coupled with his Christian upbringing shaped his approach to life and leadership.
Upon graduation from Lenoir-Rhyne University with a BA in Sociology, Atkinson began a career in public service with a community-based program helping low-income citizens. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on a career with the NC Highway Patrol. A decade or so into his 20-year career as a highway patrolman, Atkinson set his sights on the office of Sheriff.
While most would consider their personal desire, the humble kid from Wilson County made a conscious decision to put his aside. Atkinson delayed his ascent to leadership out of respect for then-Sheriff James Knight. He viewed Knight as a mentor and felt he was already doing a great job as sheriff. As such, he vowed not to run against him, giving Knight the freedom to focus on serving the citizens of Edgecombe County. A prime example of a serviceman putting the people before himself for the good of the community he one day hoped to serve.
On April 3rd, 2017, he got his opportunity! A little over a year in office, Sheriff Atkinson is furthering the work of his predecessor but on his terms. “I’ve got my own shoes to fill,” he proclaims. And that’s precisely what he’s done as he strives to become an integral part of Edgecombe County and the surrounding communities. According to Sheriff Atkinson, “To impact this community, I know I have to make contact with this community.” He’s done so by implementing an open door policy while making a commitment to be present at community events. That mindset extends to everyone within the sheriff’s office as they’re encouraged to visit churches and schools while on duty.
In addition to community efforts, the sheriff’s office also embraces their obligation to industry and economic growth. According to Sheriff Atkinson, “When huge manufactures and businesses come to the county, they want to know who’s protecting the community. One thing I’ve been encouraging our county to understand is that we are a marketing tool for the county.” Acknowledging that part of his responsibility rests in presenting the county and the sheriff’s office in a way that is welcoming to potential new business is two-fold.
Changing the economic climate within Edgecombe County by securing new industry includes preparing its citizens. Sheriff Atkinson states, “I’ve gotta encourage our community to get off drugs, stop smoking weed and get your body clean. If businesses are coming, go to the community college and learn what that business is so that you can get ready to get a decent job.”
As it relates to crime, the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s office faces the same set of challenges most communities face, “Gangs, guns, drugs, and economics.” With 3 opioid overdoses a week and gang-related activity on the rise, it’s not enough to address the issues. Everyone must work to circumvent them. To do so requires a collective effort from all parties including those you might not expect. Sheriff Atkinson promotes a level of inclusivity that puts city leaders and informal leaders (gang members) in the same room to better understand the issues while having a certain level of compassion for one another.
We are all aware of the divide that exists between black and brown communities and those sworn to protect them which is why Sheriff Atkinson chooses to lead with compassion. Under his leadership, everyone is required to do the same. “This is what I drive to my guys, if a mother’s son goes out and does something criminal, at the end of the day, that’s still her son. That’s still her baby. Have enough compassion for momma to answer her questions and stay professional.” We are all one mistake away from a life-altering consequence.
In addition to going above and beyond the call of duty as sheriff of Edgecombe County, Sheriff Atkinson has been running a free program out of Thorne’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church called T.H.I.N.K. Thorne’s Chapel Inspiring Neighborhood Kids is an initiative to provide academic support through spiritual and social activities. He has also implemented programs such as W.R.A.P and Day to Day Dads to help reacclimate newly released inmates back into society. The Edgecombe County Sheriffs office is also in the process of establishing a GED program for inmates using Ipads. Sheriff Atkinson maintains, “At the end of the day, they made poor decisions. All of them are not bad people and it’s my job to help them get back on track.”
Steadfast in his commitment to the citizens of Edgecombe County, Sheriff Atkinson’s ultimate desire is as selfless as his choice to dedicate his life to service. “I just ask God to make me a better person every day and to impact anybody that comes into my circle.”
Each day that Sheriff Atkinson proudly wears that star-shaped badge across his chest, is another day the citizens of Edgecombe County are privileged to call him sheriff.