The Color Line: The Past and Mr. Pickering

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Mr. Zeitz is a visiting assistant professor of history at Brown University and a writer for the History News Service.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will vote early in March on the Bush administration's effort to elevate Federal District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. to the 5th Circuit of Appeals, based in New Orleans. The committee should stop this nomination in its tracks.

Why is that? Because Judge Pickering once enjoyed connections with the now-defunct Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state-sponsored police outfit that fought tooth-and-nail for almost 20 years to block the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. This fact alone makes him clearly unfit to join the appellate court.

In 1990, when his nomination to the District Court fell before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Pickering testified under oath that he"never had any contact with the Sovereignty Commission." Eight years later the state of Mississippi was compelled to disclose 124,000 pages of previously sealed documents relating to the commission's long and sordid campaign against civil rights activists. Judge Pickering, it seems, did have contact with commission agents in the early 1970s, when as a state legislator he contacted them to request information on grassroots labor organizers in Laurel, Miss.

The Mississippi legislature created the Sovereignty Commission in 1956, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, for the avowed purpose of undertaking"all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment thereon by the federal government." The commission was essentially the state's official arm in a campaign of"massive resistance" to the court-ordered integration of public schools and, later, in the 1960s, to the enfranchisement of black citizens and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws governing public accommodations and employment. For good measure, the commission also conspired to disrupt the work of organized labor and other liberal interests in Mississippi.

Pickering's involvement with this organization casts serious doubt on his commitment to enforcing federal law and upholding the Constitution. It's bad enough that, as a law student in 1959, Pickering wrote a law review article suggesting ways to strengthen the state's anti-miscegenation laws. This fact alone should raise eyebrows in the Senate. But certainly no respectable public official should ever have consorted with the Sovereignty Commission, whose principal activities were domestic espionage and sabotage. The commission's files reveal that paid agents accumulated personal and political intelligence on more than 87,000 subjects. To place this number in perspective, remember that between 1939 and 1954 the FBI's"Security Index" filed intelligence reports on just 26,000 suspected Communists nationwide.

When Judge Pickering contacted the Sovereignty Commission, he knowingly joined efforts with expert blackmailers and extortionists. In 1964, for instance, the commission's head administrator, Erle Johnston, Jr., learned of a pending application by a black man seeking admission to the state university at Hattiesburg. Johnston instructed the school's president, W.D. McCain, to read aloud the following warning to the concerned applicant:"We have information that you are a homosexual. If you change your mind about enrolling at an all white university we will say no more about it. If you persist in your application, we will give this information to the press and the Justice Department."

Pickering's contacts at the Sovereignty Commission sometimes flirted with even darker elements in Mississippi's vast conspiracy to preserve Jim Crow. In 1964, as part of its efforts to keep tabs on civil rights workers, the commission disseminated to local law enforcement agencies the license plate number of a car registered to the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella group of civil rights organizations. Months later, the decomposed and mutilated bodies of three civil rights martyrs -- James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- were pulled from that very car. Local police officials had delivered the three straight into the hands of a lynch mob.

Equally problematic, by forging ties to the Sovereignty Commission, Pickering indirectly associated himself with the White Citizens Councils of Mississippi, a loose federation of groups that enjoyed financial support from the commission. Inaugurated just months after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board, the councils brought together many of the South's leading citizens, who proposed to fight tooth and nail -- through economic and social coercion -- to bar court-mandated desegregation.

Charles Pickering's trespasses are grave and abhorrent. By any reasonable standard, they disqualify him from service on the appellate court. In the 1970s he worked with a state police force dedicated to preserving the legal and social edifices of Jim Crow. In 1990 he lied outright to the Senate Judiciary Committee about his contact with the Sovereignty Commission. Congress should act swiftly to reject his promotion. Charles Pickering does not belong on the Circuit Court.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Jacob Goldfinger - 3/10/2002

Here's history, if you're interested:

*1959: Pickering writes a law review article advocating strengthening the state's miscegenation law.

*1960s-1970s: Pickering supports the Sovereignty Commission, an organization he knew was complicit in racially-motivated murder.

*1990: Pickering lies to the Senate during his confirmation hearings, claiming he had no connection to the Sovereignty Commission. But he now decides that interracial marriage should not be illegal.

*1994: Again violates judicial ethics rules in a forbidden ex parte meeting with prosecutors, in which - as a judge! - he argued for a reduced sentence for a convicted cross burner.

*CAREER: 1,100 out of 1,200 decisions unpublished. Judges rarely choose not the publish their opinions. That's OK, though. The nearly 100 published decisions are damning enough.

Jacob Goldfinger - 3/10/2002

Prof. Zeitz has outlined Pickering's despicable record of more than 40 years. The record shows Pickering's history of racism and his failure to evolve as a judge or human being.

This is not about a single article he wrote in 1959 detailing ways to strengthen the state's miscegenation laws. He supported the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission - an organization he knew was complicit in racially-motivated murder -into the 1970s.

And he LIED about it at his confirmation hearing in 1990, a clear violation of judicial ethics. Oh, at that same hearing he also claimed that he had no opinion on interracial marriage at the time he wrote the 1959 article. He now says it should be legal. Bless his heart.

What Prof. Zeitz did not mention was Pickering's record as a judge. Pickering has written about 1,200 opinions in his career, but has published fewer than 100. In the opinions Pickering has allowed us to see, he savages Miranda rights and pooh-poohs that silly "one person, one vote" doctrine. In doing so, he cites the Bible more often than precedent.

All it takes is a brief glance at Pickering's record to recognize that there is no place for him on the federal bench.

Michael McElreath - 3/8/2002

If Pickering doesn't deserve to be an appellate judge, give us more to go on than an embarrassing essay written as a student and a single request for information from unsavory characters in the MSC. Finding one contact between Pickering and the Sovereignty Commission does not make him guilty of everything it ever did. I assume the man has a long history of written opinions that ought to be more relevant to his fitness for the higher bench than what he did as either a student or a state legislator.

p.d. swiney - 3/7/2002

I think Mr. Beezley has made a valid point. Beyond the "polemic" rhetoric, the only fact that emerged is that Pickering consulted with the Sovereignty Committee in the early 1970's. Rather than discuss the activities of the Sovereignty Committee in other decades and other actions, wouldn't it be more fruitful to examine the judge's judicial record for evidence of bias or complaints? Isn't that what is at issue here? Charles Evers is in favor of the nomination. This method of ad hominem attack is a contributing factor to the disgust of the voting population, which is shrinking with every election, and convinces the upcoming generation that all political discourse is comprised of bias and lies.

Derek Catsam - 3/6/2002

Mr. Horgan -- what are you talking about? This entire piece was based on evidence from Mr. Pickering's past. A vehement argument based on evidence is not a polemic. You may disagree with the argument proferred and the use of the evidence. But to say that this is not a historically based piece is itself ahistorical and a little, well, idiotic. And what reality is it NOT a part of? The reality, in case you missed it, is that a current judicial nominee has serious questions about his segregationist past. To question the "reality" or "history" of this makes me question your motivation.

Charles Horgan - 3/6/2002

Can we do history here and not polemical discourse. This is absolute tripe and has little, if any connection with either reality or history.
Thank you very much

Paul R. Beezley - 3/6/2002

So Judge Pickering requested information from the Soveriegnty Commision. How did he use it? Did he himself inform on people, did he blackmail folks? Did he stand in the way of integration? Did threaten violence against anyone? To mearly state that he got information from what was a disguist group, but a state authorized, supported and recognized part of the Mississippi government is to slander the man in the way the Joe McCarthey once did with those folks who ate or spoke with Communists. Is this what we want to return to? Many folks in Mississippi who know the Judge, both black and white, support his nomination. Why are so many of the cries of outrage coming from folks who don't know this man at all? If we want to through out folks who have questionable civil rights records, lets start with Sen Byrd, who did not ask the KKK for information, but was a MEMBER of that group- and Sen. Hollings & Thrumond- whose record's on race during the late 40's & 50's speak for themselves.
Does Pickering have things to be embarrassed about? I think so. Does he appear to be a solid judge? Again, I think so. Are liberal groups determined to put the pressure the sitting President in a run up to a certain battle over the Supreme Court by tarnishing this man? Again, for the answer is yes.
Both side, liberal & conservative, have made Senate confirmation such a disgusting, drawn out, humilating experience, that who in their right mind would take these jobs? We are destined, as during the Articles of Confederation, to be governed by second-tier men & women because the truly great minds of our age are unwilling to participate in this circus of humilation.
Paul R. Beezley