Judge Pickering Defenders Insult Mississippi

They say Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. has changed. Like most old segregationists, Pickering apologists tell us, he's come a long way since the heady years between "Black Monday" 1954, the date of the US Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, and 1973 when the state Legislature finally closed the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. His defenders say Pickering just went along with the old racists ó who have all apparently disappeared into thin air. His efforts to outlaw miscegenation, to undermine the one-man-one-vote principle, to weaken the Voting Rights Act, to shorten a cross-burner's federal-mandated sentence, to keep the Sovereignty Commission reporting on 87,000 subversives ó none of that matters in 2002. The Washington Post excoriates us liberals in an editorial, saying we're just glossing the "complexities" of the rather indisputable facts.

After all, as the Post and the Jackson Clarion-Ledger here reminds us, then-attorney Pickering challenged members of the KKK in 1967. And even Malcolm X and Lincoln later altered their views, you know. Therefore, their reasoning goes, the new and approved Pickering should be appointed a 5th Circuit judge, looking out for the interests of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, together comprising the largest and poorest bloc of minorities in the country.

Who's glossing what here? Allow me to speak as a Mississippian whose family helped pay the taxes that funded that cowardly spy agency lovingly called the Sovereignty Commission. The Commission that provided the White Citizens Council (the precursor to today's Council of Conservative Citizens; with lists of businesses and citizens seen as sympathetic to the "agitators" so they could run them out of business (or town). The one that compiled the home addresses of black school children who tried to enroll in public school in 1964, just in case anyone needed to know. The one that provided lawmakers reports of subversive activity like black Citizens Bank employee Benny Stennis using the bathroom at "Mr. W. H. Holland's Amoco service station" in Philadelphia, Mississippi (File No. 2-112-43). Director Erle Johnston Jr. wrote to the state: "The report shows that Stennis made apologies for using this facility and said it was an emergency. -- [I]f you think we should extend this investigation, we will be happy to do so."

As a state senator, Pickering voted twice to keep funding the Sovereignty Commission. Perhaps he didn't know the agency had fed the license plate number and precise descriptions of Rita and Michael Schwerner and their Volkswagen (File No. 2-46-71) to law enforcement and Klan members around the state months before Schwerner and two other civil rights workers were killed in my hometown. Or that investigator A. L. Hopkins told the state on January 25, 1965, less than months after Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner's bodies were found, how many times each was shot and what order and which Klansmen had confessed (File No. 2-112-53). The state wasn't exactly building a case against the murderers. "[T]he defense attorneys already have this information and probably will handle it in the manner it should be handled," Hopkins reported.

Today, Pickering has "integrity," Jackson Clarion-Ledger editorial director David Hampton writes. (The same paper would have thought so back then as well.) No doubt, whether out of change of heart or political expediency, Pickering has shown progress, drawing kudos from some Mississippi blacks for his race reconciliation efforts.

That's admirable, but it doesn't matter here. Federal judgeships aren't consolation prizes for a few years of decent behavior. Pickering protege Trent Lott and George W. Bush put up a man with a hostile record toward existing federal civil rights, voting and discrimination protections, knowing he would draw complaints. Lott and Bush likely balanced the anticipated outrage against their need for the racist vote (remember Lott and the CofCC; Bush and Bob Jones University?). And Bush had his dad's debt to repay. "As the Bush state chairman, Pickering was responsible for an aggressive 'get-out-the-vote' drive that resulted in Bush receiving 60.5 percent of the popular vote (in Mississippi) on election day," bragged a Dec. 8, 1988, Republican National Committee press release. "Charles' experience as a party activist and his keen political judgment will provide President-elect Bush with invaluable insight."

Imagine the Republican response to a Democratic "party activist" -- much less a Malcolm X -- being nominated for the federal bench. But Pickering has always been a political animal, following the racist path from the Mississippi Democratic Party through the Goldwater transformation of the GOP that resulted directly from segregationist outrage. More from Hampton: "He is a longtime laborer in the GOP, a Republican long before being called Republican was cool in Mississippi." This cracks me up, and not just the idea that there is a "cool" Republican in Mississippi today. It's that this is meant as a defense of Pickering, who was never, I promise, a Lincoln or a Black-White Republican. He joined the Grand Old Party the same time that most of the racist power structure took refuge there and, yes, it was about race. So what Hampton is saying, intentionally or not, is that Pickering was a segregationist Republican before the Mississippi GOP thought they should start looking more moderate and attract black voters. That'll convince us agitators.

The supporters need to watch their hypocrisy. They tend to be of the punitive sort -- the three-strikes-and-you're-out-for-life, buy-a-joint-and-you'll-never-vote-again crowd. Many probably agree with Justice Scalia that a judge should step down if he has objections to the death penalty, being that it's legal. (But don't dare apply that same logic to abortion.) I find all this but-he's-changed rhetoric a little disingenuous.

But it's the taking-on-the-Klan praise that really frosts my toes. This is the ultimate bigotry of low expectations; the bar here is practically on the ground: Apologists are actually giving a would-be circuit judge an ovation for once prosecuting the low-life scum of the KKK. I hate to be a pooper here, but even the Sovereignty Commission was starting to sour on the Klan by the late 1960s. Yes, too many Mississippians allowed the Klan to flourish in the early 1960s, but after the two white men guaranteed that an otherwise-routine lynching attracted national attention, cemented federal civil-rights legislation and later meant actual prison time for race murderers, the state started realizing that blatant violence was counter-productive. The KKK rapidly fell out of favor, especially with white business owners who needed black customers to survive. By 1967, it was daring but not exactly revolutionary to challenge the KKK.

But to hear the Pickering crowd, and sadly our daily newspaper, a reformed segregationist is the best this state can offer right now. Maybe it's true; I hope not, but our contribution to the federal bench should be rejected, if so. Make Mississippi dig deeper for a federal judge who doesn't harbor resentment toward federal law. It's groovy that our segregationists might want to redeem themselves; they can find plenty of ways, perhaps starting with public apologies. Pickering could even get a landmark named after him like the Ross Barnett Reservoir and the Paul Johnson State Park (he who called the NAACP "Niggers, Apes, Alligators, Coons and Possums"). But it will not help this state, or the rights of thousands of Southern citizens, to risk setting back the federal judiciary 40 years.

With any luck, by now, the nomination of Charles W. Pickering Sr. has been relegated to the history books where it belongs, somewhere between "James Chaney" and "Michael Schwerner." 

Donna Ladd ( is a writer in Jackson, Miss. Write her at

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2002 The Progressive Populist