The racist skeletons in Charles Pickering's closet

President Bush dumped Trent Lott because of his segregationist baggage. So why is he fighting relentlessly for a judge who has refused to come clean about his own bigoted past?

Published May 12, 2003 9:55PM (EDT)

When Senate Democrats voted last March to reject Judge Charles Pickering's nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Majority Leader Trent Lott called the vote "a slap at Mississippi, my state." In fact, the bitter party-line vote on Pickering revolved around the same issues that would bring down Lott nine months later: Mississippi's shameful history of racism, and the pro-segregation politics practiced by state Republicans like Pickering and Lott in the 1960s.

Pickering has long tried to downplay and even disavow that history, in sworn testimony to the Senate during his first confirmation hearing in 1990, and again in 2002. Since 1964, the year he switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party, the Mississippi judge told the Senate last year, he "was involved and [has] been involved in trying to establish better race relations" in his home state. His supporters have gone even further, calling Pickering, in Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell's words, a man with the "resounding virtue" of "moral courage," who "had to deal with white citizens and politicians who resisted integration and civil rights." But Democrats weren't convinced by the way Pickering recast his history, with Sen. Charles Schumer of New York calling his civil rights record "troubling."

Now, with Republicans back in control of the Senate, President Bush has resubmitted Pickering's nomination, and he's got a new shot at joining the crucial, conservative bench on the 5th Circuit. But there's also new evidence that Pickering has lied about his efforts "to establish better race relations" in the 1960s, discovered in the papers of Pickering's former law partner, the devoted segregationist J. Carroll Gartin.

The new evidence, housed at the University of Mississippi Library, shows that Pickering's decision to defect to the Republicans -- a key turning point in his public career -- came at the strong urging of Gartin, who as lieutenant governor from 1956 to 1960 and again from 1964 until his sudden death in 1966 was a leading member of Mississippi's notoriously racist Sovereignty Commission. Gartin's papers -- including his personal letters and other private documents, plus memos, press releases and news clippings from the time -- also confirm, in more detail than ever before, that Pickering became a Republican in 1964 to protest the national Democratic Party's support for civil rights and its attacks on segregation -- a motive the judge refused to acknowledge in his testimony last year.

A decision on Pickering's nomination could come as early as this week. The GOP is so determined to crush Democratic opposition to Bush's more conservative appointees that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is trying to change the filibuster rules, and on Friday Bush demanded that senators vote on his nominees within 180 days. Pickering's nomination isn't currently scheduled for a hearing, and it's possible Republicans will push for a vote without one. The Pickering nomination could become a test case in the escalating war over judicial appointments between the White House and Senate Democrats. The new revelations found in his law partner's papers could well strengthen the Democrats' hand. Pickering could not be reached for comment about the Gartin papers, and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Judiciary Committee chairman, did not return calls.

Even without the new evidence from Gartin's papers, Pickering's testimony had already yielded some troubling contradictions, distortions and apparent falsehoods -- a pattern of dissembling that calls into question his fitness for the federal bench. And Gartin and the Sovereignty Commission have been the subject of many of Pickering's most dubious public statements in recent years, including statements given under oath.

In 1990, for instance, when he was successfully nominated as a federal judge for the southern district of Mississippi, Pickering testified that he had had no contact with the commission and knew little about its operations. This was false, as the commission's subsequently released files show. In 2002, Pickering attempted to correct his false testimony, saying that he had contacted the commission in 1972 because he was concerned about possible Ku Klux Klan infiltration of a union in his hometown. This too was false: Commission records show that Pickering actually contacted the commission about union infiltration by a well-known civil rights organization, not the KKK.

Also in his 2002 Senate testimony, Pickering tried to portray Gartin as a "progressive" political leader and not a racist. This too, as he grudgingly conceded -- though only in part, under close examination by Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin -- was false. Pickering also insisted that when Gartin ran for governor in 1959, his opponent Ross Barnett was the recognized segregationist candidate and that being insufficiently pro-segregation was why Gartin was defeated. Under Durbin's questioning, Pickering asserted that Gartin's philosophy on segregation was not "as radical as [that of] Ross Barnett."

Maybe most remarkably, in a contentious exchange with Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, Pickering again and again refused to answer questions about whether he left the Democratic Party in 1964 because of the party's belated but brave moves on behalf of integration. Pickering dodged Feingold's questions every way imaginable and never gave an answer.

The Gartin papers provide plenty of answers to all of those questions. First of all, they show why Pickering went to so much trouble to try to play down Gartin's segregationist history, revealing Gartin's previously unknown "conversion" of Pickering to the Republican Party, as part of the lieutenant governor's quiet, behind-the-scenes collaboration with the Mississippi GOP. Gartin himself stayed where most political power was in those years -- he remained a Democrat, sympathetic to segregationist Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, but instrumental in delivering Mississippi resoundingly to Barry Goldwater in 1964.

The new evidence also shows the extent to which Pickering dissembled about Gartin's 1959 campaign. Gartin's papers show that the race pitted two confirmed pro-segregationist candidates against each other, and in his campaign Gartin accused Barnett of being softer on integration than he was. The papers also show that when Gov. Barnett took the most radical stance of his career, over the desegregation of the University of Mississippi, Carroll Gartin stood proudly -- and publicly -- by Barnett's side.

Gartin's papers show conclusively that, contrary to McConnell's description, Pickering himself was one of those "white citizens and politicians who resisted integration and civil rights," not someone working to oppose such forces. Instead of "trying to establish better race relations" in the 1960s, Pickering worked to support segregation, attack civil rights advocates who sought to end Jim Crow, and back those who opposed national civil rights legislation, above all the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Or, in the words of a public statement he signed in 1967, Pickering wanted to preserve "our southern way of life," and he bitterly blamed civil rights workers for stirring up "turmoil and racial hatred" in the South.

In the wake of the Trent Lott debacle, when the Mississippi senator lost his leadership post for publicly praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign, much was made of the fact that President Bush's criticism helped push Lott to resign. It was said to be the Republican Party's attempt to detach itself from the politics of racial division that's made it acceptable for Southerners like Lott to deliver votes by praising the symbols of their racist past, from Confederate flags to Thurmond's disgraceful Dixiecrat candidacy. And yet within a month of Lott's resignation, Bush re-nominated Pickering, a Lott crony who left the Democratic Party for the same reason Thurmond did -- to protest its support for integration.

The fact that in 1967 Pickering testified, cursorily, against a violent Ku Klux Klan leader -- an incident much cited by his supporters -- hardly offsets his record of supporting segregation. In Jim Crow Mississippi, segregation was preserved thanks to the work of crude and violent racists as well as sophisticated, conservative racists who fought for their goals with different methods. Although sometimes at odds over tactics, both groups bitterly battled efforts to give blacks civil rights. In the 1960s, Charles Pickering, like Carroll Gartin, was one of the sophisticated segregationists -- a fact that he and his backers are now trying to suppress.

Fully appreciating the importance of Carroll Gartin and his work "converting" Charles Pickering to the Republican Party requires understanding Mississippi politics of 40 years ago. It has long been a matter of public record that Pickering supported the lily-white pro-segregation Mississippi Regular Democrats in 1964, the official state party organization. The so-called Regular Democrats openly discriminated against blacks and excluded them from party activities and meetings. In 1964, black Mississippians, with some white supporters, organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and selected their own slate of delegates to represent the state at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

The conflict between the rival slates became an event of national importance, highlighted by the electrifying testimony of MFDP delegate Fannie Lou Hamer before the convention's credentials committee. It's not an exaggeration to call Hamer's remarks a pivotal moment in American history. President Lyndon Johnson offered a compromise giving the MFDP two at-large seats and pledging that the Mississippi party would support the national ticket and eliminate racial discrimination in future delegate selection. Neither slate of delegates agreed to the deal, and in dramatic fashion, the all-white Regular delegation walked out of the convention hall. And some of them walked out of the Democratic Party.

The walk-out came at a time of prolonged political crisis in Mississippi. The summer of 1964 was the Mississippi Freedom Summer, when with the aid of white and black supporters from around the country, pro-civil-rights Mississippians attempted to register blacks to vote and to participate in the precinct, county and state conventions of the Democratic Party. (It was this effort that led to the creation of the MFDP.) Political tensions rose early in July, when Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law. There was also violence in Mississippi that summer, most notoriously the murder of three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.

During the weeks after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and before the Democratic National Convention, several leading Mississippi Democrats either endorsed the Republican national ticket or joined the Dixiecrat candidate, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, in leaving the Democratic Party altogether. Their statements were often couched in code words -- resisting the Democrats' alleged "socialism" was one of the most common -- but the issue was clear. They rejected what they saw as unjust federal efforts to end racial segregation in Mississippi. The fight was not about foreign policy, or tax rates, or anything other than racial segregation.

After the Democratic convention in late August, more pro-segregation Democrats either announced their support for the Republican ticket or left the Democratic Party, blaming the attempted compromise in Atlantic City and its offer of token recognition to the civil rights Mississippi delegates.

One of the most conspicuous pro-segregation Democrats was Lt. Gov. J. Carroll Gartin. As lieutenant governor, he wrote to Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus to express his admiration and support for Faubus' defiance of federal authority in the Little Rock school desegregation crisis of 1957. Eight years later, the year before his death, Gartin praised Alabama's segregationist governor, George C. Wallace, for his "great American message."

Between those dates, Gartin devoted himself fully to the segregationist cause. In 1959, pledging himself as a "total and absolute segregationist," Gartin ran unsuccessfully for governor in the Democratic primary against Ross Barnett, who would go on to great notoriety during the violent desegregation crisis at the University of Mississippi in 1962. One of Gartin's chief arguments in that campaign was that, unlike Barnett, whom he called "a headline segregationist," he, Gartin, was "a successful segregationist." ("Mr. Gartin believes in speaking low and carrying a big stick," one piece of campaign material declared about segregation. "Mr. Barnett believes in speaking loud with no stick at all.")

Gartin did not confine his segregationism to the campaign stump. As lieutenant governor in the 1950s and 1960s -- and as a leader of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the semi-secret state agency dedicated to resisting integration and the civil rights movement -- Gartin endorsed massive resistance to desegregation. In 1962, when his former primary opponent, Gov. Barnett, defied federal authority during the Ole Miss crisis -- which quickly degenerated into mob violence -- Gartin made a point of sending a wire to Barnett to pledge his support and congratulate him for his "determination to keep our schools and colleges open and segregated." And when faced, in 1964, with a choice between token integration leading to an eventual dismantling of racial discrimination inside the Democratic Party, and the continuation of segregation, Gartin sided unequivocally with segregation.

At least one of Pickering's current supporters, the columnist Bill Minor of the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, has asserted that Gartin "had little to do with the [Sovereignty] commission's operations," despite the glaring public record to the contrary. Among other things, Gartin, in connection with the commission, directed an unsuccessful effort to destroy Tougaloo College, the only racially integrated institution of higher learning in the state, in 1964. Gartin's leadership role in the commission is amply documented in the commission's now opened files.

After the Atlantic City Democratic convention, Gartin accused President Johnson of personally "master-minding the insults" directed at the white segregationist Regular Democrats. He urged voters to support the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, who had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights bill.

The new evidence reveals, in addition, that some time before the Democratic convention Gartin was meeting with officials of the Mississippi Republican Party concerning the upcoming election, and promising to help give the voters a "clear choice" in November. As part of fulfilling that promise, Gartin undertook what he later described as an important effort -- what he called "converting" his law partner, Charles Pickering, to the Republicans.

Gartin himself held back from switching parties, although one Republican leader wrote him to extend an invitation, noting that "we need you and your guiding hand on our side also." But Gartin saw no problem in working hand-in-glove with the Republicans behind the scenes in order to ward off the menace of desegregation -- and to deliver to the Republicans his pro-segregation law partner, Pickering.

As he wrote to Republican Party official F. Hobson Gary on Sept. 21, 1964: "This boy, Charles Pickering, is a very able person and I think he will mean a great deal to the Republican party in Mississippi." Gartin went on to say: "Personally, I have been so busy converting my law partner lately that I haven't been out too much, but I still think Goldwater will easily carry the state."

It is clear from his papers that Gartin prevailed upon Pickering not simply to reject Johnson's candidacy because of his civil rights stands, but to reject the Democrats entirely and join the Republicans -- and to help offer Mississippians what Gartin called "a clear-cut choice" in the election.

Yet if Carroll Gartin was the "guiding hand" behind "converting" Pickering, the young lawyer was not a thoughtless convert. Far from putty in his mentor's hands, Pickering thought and talked a great deal before making his decision. By Gartin's account, Pickering kept him "busy." But finally, Pickering was convinced that, in the wake of the national Democrats' moves on civil rights, both pragmatism and principle dictated that he leave the party and join the Republicans, whose presidential candidate had conspicuously voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- and who went on to win nearly 90 percent of the Mississippi vote in the fall election.

When he announced his switch, Pickering, not surprisingly, said nothing about Gartin's role in his conversion. But he made it clear, albeit sometimes by code words, that the national Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights was the chief reason he decided to bolt. Although his "converting" may have begun before the convention in Atlantic City, he cited the convention's attack on the segregated practices of the Mississippi Regular Democratic Party.

"The people of our State," Pickering told a local newspaper at the time he switched, in a report cited during his 2002 Senate testimony, "were heaped with humiliation and embarrassment at the Democratic Convention. And this has convinced me beyond a doubt that Mississippians do not now and will not in the future have any useful place in the National Democratic Party."

Pickering went on to say in a UPI report, dated Sept. 10: "I see in the Republican Party our only hope of rescuing our national government from an ever increasing tendency toward socialism."

That was exactly the way other defecting pro-segregationists in Mississippi had defended their decision since Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act in early July.

What difference do these revelations make? At minimum they shed new light on Pickering's repeated evasions and misrepresentations, in sworn testimony before the Senate, about his activities and Gartin's political views. It wasn't entirely clear why Pickering gave so much incorrect or misleading testimony about Gartin and about the Sovereignty Commission in which Gartin was such a powerful force. The newly discovered evidence sheds light on the matter: Clearly Gartin was a far more important influence on Pickering's political thinking and decision-making in 1964 than Pickering has ever publicly divulged.

In 2002, Pickering attempted to portray Gartin as a progressive who was not a racist. What we know now is that, in trying to cover up Gartin's past, Pickering wasn't just covering up for his late law partner: He was covering up for the man who, more than any other, was responsible for his bolting the Democratic Party in 1964, a major event in Pickering's career. That is, he was covering up for himself. But it's worth looking closely at how evasive Pickering was about his own reasons for leaving the party.

There were several recurring themes in Pickering's 2002 Senate testimony. He repeatedly insisted that remarks from 1964 should not be judged from today's perspective. Yet he also repeatedly airbrushed the historical record to make it seem far more benign than it was. In his opening statement, for example, he cited former Mississippi Gov. Paul Winter saying that Gartin was not a racist. Only under intense questioning by Sen. Richard Durbin did Pickering partially back off from that claim. When Durbin provided a sheaf of evidence showing Gartin loudly proclaiming his segregationist views, Pickering admitted that "those were racist statements, without a doubt." But he insisted that no state leader could have been elected in Mississippi at that time without supporting segregation -- implying that Gartin was an otherwise decent and progressive political leader.

Pickering was even more evasive and misleading in his testimony about his own racial reasons for leaving the Democratic Party. During Pickering's single day of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Feb. 7, 2002, Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin asked him to discuss that decision in detail. Pickering dodged every effort to get him to say whether he understood at the time that the Mississippi Regular Democrats were "humiliated" by President Johnson -- the supposed reason he left the party -- for a defensible reason: They systematically excluded and discriminated against blacks.

At first, Pickering simply ignored Feingold's question. He talked about Gartin, calling him "a progressive leader of that time" -- without ever mentioning Gartin's direct influence on his decision to switch parties. He also talked vaguely about "the difference between political decisions and political statements and judicial decisions." But the issue wasn't the connection between judicial and political decisions, it was how truthful Pickering had been in his sworn testimony about his own past.

Feingold did not let up. Twice more, in different formulations, he raised the logical question: How could Pickering have been so passionate in supporting the Regular Democrats at Atlantic City and not known that they were a racist delegation, representing a party that systematically kept blacks from voting in its precinct, county and state party gatherings?

Pickering replied that he had long felt that African-Americans should have been allowed to vote and that he had never participated in preventing blacks from voting. But no one had ever charged Pickering with personally barring blacks from precinct meetings or polling places. And he offered no explanation to square his alleged support of black voting "even before" 1964 with his die-hard support for the Regular Democrats. Amazingly, he again dodged Feingold's question.

The senator tried one last time, asking Pickering whether he recognized that the activities of the Mississippi Democratic Party in 1964 were discriminatory and unconstitutional.

And Pickering again ignored the question, saying again he now regretted his statements of 40 years ago and would not make them today, but evading Feingold's specific query entirely.

Senators may have another chance, perhaps as early as this week, to follow up -- although the White House offensive to speed the process along seems geared specifically to preventing any such follow-up. That is all the more reason for senators to resist the administration's speed-up -- a speed-up that in the case of Charles Pickering, like the case of Bush court nominee Miguel Estrada, now amounts to forcing a judgment before all the relevant documentation has been carefully examined and debated by the Senate.

The latest evidence from the Carroll Gartin papers confirms that Pickering and his supporters are attempting to deceive the Senate and the nation about Pickering's past. Instead of making a clean breast of his personal history and explaining how his views on race and segregation have evolved, the judge and his supporters have resorted to obfuscation, euphemism and false testimony. They have stressed -- and, as others have shown, exaggerated -- Pickering's meager testimony against a Ku Klux Klan leader in 1967, in an attempt to make Pickering a beacon of moral courage. They have featured the testimony of black Mississippians who support the Judge Pickering they know today.

But the events of nearly 40 years ago, and Pickering's attempt to obscure them, have a direct bearing on how we judge the truth of Pickering's Senate testimony -- and thus on his fitness to serve on the federal court of appeals. It's true, as Pickering and his supporters say, that we can't judge people today by what they believed in another, less enlightened era, two generations ago. Had Pickering come completely clean about his past, explaining honestly when and why his views had changed, these issues would not likely have lingered. But as we've known since Watergate, the coverup is often worse than the crime.

It is clear that Pickering and his supporters have suppressed some facts, misstated others, and otherwise twisted the record to make it appear as if Pickering was someone he was not in the 1960s. His law partner's papers tell the real story. But these papers have only recently been discovered. Senators should be entitled to ask Pickering to explain the difference between his testimony and what Gartin's records reveal, before they decide his fate.

Additional reporting by Laura McClure.

By Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz teaches history at Princeton University

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