In His Professional Twilight, a Son of Mississippi Considers His Legacy on Race
Former federal judge Charles W. Pickering wants his life of accomplishment and controversy to have been a contribution to his state’s racial healing.
In 1964, Charles W. Pickering, a young lawyer and aspiring politician in the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party challenged by Freedom Summer, made a momentous decision: he joined the Republican Party.
Pickering went on to serve as a state legislator, and later a federal district judge. President George W. Bush eventually nominated him to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth District. Pickering’s confirmation hearings wound up marked by partisan acrimony. Democrats depicted him as a barely reconstructed white segregationist, whose political affiliations and judicial rulings were stained by a hostility to civil rights. Republicans and an array of Pickering’s supporters, black and white, called that character assassination, and fiercely championed a man they argued had stood up to the Klan and done much to promote racial peace.
Pickering, after serving as a recess appointee on the Fifth Circuit, eventually retired from the bench when it became clear Democrats would never grant him a permanent appointment.
Q: Tell me a bit about your family, its roots and its particular place in Mississippi history.
A: My ancestors came to Mississippi around the time Mississippi was admitted to the Union (1817) — a widowed grandmother, with her widowed daughter-in-law and her young grandson. This young grandson was my great, great grandfather. My parents and grandparents were farmers with relatively small farms. My parents were educated, but not with a great deal of formal education. I grew up on a 67-acre farm in the Hebron Community, a small farming community in the western edge of Jones County near the Leaf River. In my early years I chopped and picked cotton, picked up sweet potatoes, cut turnip greens, and broke corn. I worked alongside a black family that lived on the farm. In my teen years we started dairy farming and I milked cows at first by hand and then by machine.
Some of my ancestors may have owned slaves, but I am not sure of this. If any of my ancestors owned slaves, it would have been few in number as none were large farmers.
My parents were active in church, education and farm organizations. My father taught Sunday School and was a deacon at the Hebron Baptist Church. He was a trustee of the local elementary school from which I graduated. Three teachers taught eight grades in three classrooms. Yet, I received a good educational foundation for learning and did well in high school, college and law school. I was active in 4-H and was one of six 4-Hers to present the 4-H Report to the Nation to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
My father thought it wrong that blacks were not allowed to vote. My parents taught me to treat everyone with kindness and respect.
Although my parents did not have much formal education (my mother 8th grade, my father 9th grade) there was never any question as to whether I was going to college. It was just taken for granted that I would go. I drove a school bus my senior year in high school and my two years in junior college. The $35 a month I made driving a school bus paid for my first two years of college. I worked in the offshore oil field to pay for my junior and senior years (my senior year was also my first year in law school). My wife, Margaret Ann, and I were married after we graduated from college. She taught school and I had a paper route and worked for men’s housing my last two years in law school.
Q: What drew you to the law? As a young lawyer in Mississippi, what were your ambitions?
A: I wanted to enter politics. I wanted Mississippi to make progress in education and employment opportunities. I felt practicing law was the best way to become involved in politics and move Mississippi forward.
Q: As a young man with political aspirations, was it always clear to you that views on race would be front and center in Mississippi?
A: It was not, not as I was growing up.
Q: Your decision to join the Republican Party in Mississippi, and then to work to build it and support it, must have been controversial to some. It came during Freedom Summer, on the heels of the highly publicized effort by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the established, all-white Mississippi Democratic Party delegation at the national convention in Atlantic City. Fannie Lou Hamer, of course, was part of that effort, and she spoke powerfully about her struggles simply to vote in the state of Mississippi. In explaining your decision to become a Republican, you were quoted as saying that part of your motivation stemmed from the “humiliation” the party and state suffered at the convention. What did you mean, and how exactly did that “humiliation” factor in your decision.
A: I was elected County Prosecuting Attorney as a Democrat in 1963. I was practicing law with the Democratic Lt. Governor of Mississippi in 1964 at the time I switched parties. He told me it would be the biggest political mistake of my life, but it was my decision to make. He did not insist that I leave the firm. Most Mississippians still considered themselves Democrats and consequently disapproved of what I had done. At the time I switched I was not aware of a single other office holder in the State that was Republican. It was 28 years after I switched parties before Mississippi elected a Republican to a statewide state office.
The main motivating factor in my switch was that I felt Mississippi should rejoin the nation. Although all of our statewide elected officials were Democrats, every four years when the national political party conventions took place, all of our Democratic state officials “went fishing.” I thought the decisions that were being made at these conventions would greatly affect our nation and that Mississippi was not even in the game. I had been contemplating switching to the Republican Party for some time before the Democratic Convention and had already met with Republican Party leaders. The Democratic Party had been moving more and more to the left. When I switched there had been a strong reaction to the requirement that the Mississippi delegates sign a loyalty oath. In fact that issue played a major role in the election of John Bell Williams, a Congressman, as Governor in 1967. That was the last statewide election in Mississippi in which race was a major factor. I do not now have a copy of the remarks I made when I switched parties. My main motivation was that I felt I should be in a party where Mississippi could have influence. Regardless of the fact that the Democratic Party was becoming more liberal , it was still the home of almost all Mississippi voters. What I was about to do was not poplar with the voters. Trend setting very seldom is poplar. I have