Joe Conason's Journal

The harrowing past of a top Bush judicial nominee: Civil rights opposition, commie hunting and a partner who publicly decried "queers, quacks, quirks, political agitators."

Published January 9, 2003 5:18PM (EST)

Still burning
Now that we have revisited Mississippi in 1948 with Trent Lott, perhaps America will take another look at the Magnolia State during the '60s and '70s with Lott's judicial protigi, Charles W. Pickering Sr. Aspects of that era came up last year when the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Pickering's nomination to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the details are again salient now that Bush has renominated him.

Pickering's résumé displays many of the most unappetizing characteristics of the segregationist milieu from which he and so many other white Mississippi politicians have emerged. He did once testify against a Klan member, as his supporters incessantly repeat, but that single instance must be weighed against a long record of apparent hostility to equal rights for blacks. He and his supporters insist that he was a moderate, rather than a hardcore racist. But in the South of the Citizens Councils, a "moderate" was someone who defended segregation but didn't practice or advocate brutal violence to suppress the black freedom struggle.

One thing in Pickering's long career is quite clear: He left the Democratic Party to join the Republicans in 1964 in protest against the Democrats' support for civil rights.

Pickering's habit of whitewashing his past conduct has led him perilously close to lying under oath. When George H.W. Bush first named him to the federal bench in 1990 (two years after he chaired the Bush-Quayle campaign in Mississippi), Pickering told the Senate that he'd had no contact with the State Sovereignty Commission, his home state's notorious anti-black secret police apparatus.

"I never had any contact with that agency," he testified. Not quite true, as the since-unsealed records of the Sovereignty Commission reveal. Actually, in January 1972, Pickering apparently asked [see last page of memo] a Commission employee to keep him apprised of its surveillance of an integrated union-organizing campaign among pulpwood workers in his hometown. Later, Pickering claimed that he had been worried about "Klan" infiltration of the pulpwood workers union, but the Commission documents show clearly that it was investigating left-wing integrationists, not the KKK.

The Sovereignty Commission files, now available online, provide a primary-source perspective on the white reign of terror in Mississippi. Many of the documents mention Carroll Gartin, the former lieutenant governor who oversaw the Commission's spying, smearing and protection of thuggery -- and who also happened to have been Pickering's law partner. Perhaps Gartin was a "moderate" by Dixie standards, but it is hard to see how that description fits his role with the Sovereignty Commission.

In a March 2, 1964 memo to Gartin and then-Gov. Paul Johnson, a staffer describes how the Sovereignty Commission helped local authorities to suppress civil rights demonstrations in Hattiesburg and Canton. Among other things, its spies made sure to take "motion pictures" of the "native Negroes" who showed up at the demonstrations.

That same year, Gartin directed a campaign against Tougaloo College, a historically black institution that had been integrated and that served as a base for civil rights activity in northern Mississippi. Working closely with the Sovereignty Commission, which used secret informants at the college, Gartin sought to remove Tougaloo's accreditation and successfully drove its liberal white president to resign. Gartin called the school a haven of "queers, quacks, quirks, political agitators and possibly some communists."

Considerable evidence exists to suggest that Pickering hasn't entirely discarded the prejudices once espoused by his late law partner. As a jurist he has been no friend of the downtrodden; to portray him as a lifelong racial moderate is ludicrous on its face. Pickering should stop covering up his past -- and start speaking candidly about what he did that was shameful, and when he changed his views, if ever.
[2:21 p.m. PST, Jan. 9, 2003]

The Back of the GOP bus
On the same day that the president decided to renominate Charles Pickering to the federal appeals bench, California's highest-ranking black Republican spoke out about persistent racism in the party of Trent Lott. Shannon Reeves, the GOP party secretary who resides in Oakland, is furious about the apparent Confederate sympathies of vice chairman Bill Back, a hard-right activist who is now running for state chairman.

In an e-mail to state GOP board members that is quoted at length in the Contra Costa Times, Reeves writes: "Black Republicans are expected to provide window dressing and cover to prove that this is not a racist party, yet our own leadership continues to act otherwise." Clearly Reeves feels stung by the controversy over an electronic newsletter sent out by Back in 1999, which carried an essay suggesting that America would have been better off if the South had won the Civil War. Back has rebuffed a demand by Reeves that he drop out of the race for state chairman against a moderate candidate.

In the same e-mail, Reeves tries to educate his fellow Republicans about the indignities he has endured during his years of working for the GOP.

"When I travel to speak at Republican conferences and events around the country, wandering through hotels, convention centers and social clubs, as I approach the rooms where I'm scheduled to speak, I am often told by Republicans that I must be in the wrong place," he wrote.

Although still an admirer of the president, Reeves also offers a bitter sidebar to the multicultural spectacle (or "minstrel show") that accompanied George W. Bush's presidential nomination:

"As a Bush delegate at the 2000 convention in Philadelphia, I proudly wore my delegate's badge and (Republican National Committee) lapel pin as I worked the convention. Regardless of the fact that I was obviously a delegate prominently displaying my credentials, no less than six times did white delegates dismissively tell me (to) fetch them a taxi or carry their luggage."
[9:48 a.m. PST, Jan. 9, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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