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 no doubt I couched my remarks as I switched in what I considered to be the most favorable light in the context of our times. One of the favorite sayings of those involved in the young Republican Party in Mississippi at that time was that, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left me.” Incidentally, Rev. Ed King one of the two Freedom Democratic delegates seated in the 1964 convention and Gov. Winter were strong supporters of my confirmation.
Mississippi was and is basically a conservative state. I am conservative. Unfortunately, some people then, and even now, associate conservatism with racism. That is not true. The Republican Party of the 1960’s was much more conservative than the Democratic Party, but it was Everett Dirksen and other Republican leaders that made passage of the Civil Rights Bill a reality. The 1967 Republican nominee for Governor of Mississippi was the first statewide candidate to make an appeal to black voters and to push for equal opportunities for blacks. The Mississippi Republican Party of the 1960’s was far more progressive on matters of race than was the Mississippi Democratic Party of the 1960’s. When African Americans started voting in the 1970’s most quickly gravitated to the Democratic Party.
WWhen I became Chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party in 1976 I hired the first African American field man for the Mississippi Republican Party. I sought opportunities as Chairman to speak at the statewide meetings of the NAACP. I was active in helping black constituents. I did not think it was in the best interest of blacks, Mississippians or the nation for us to be politically divided along racial lines. Unfortunately, I was fighting a losing battle. The NAACP is now largely a part of the Democratic Party.
Q: What was it like for you and your family to be targeted by the Klan? That can’t have been an easy time. In fact, it’s possible that some people were surprised you took them on so forcefully. Why should that not have surprised people?
A: It is never pleasant to be attacked or criticized by your neighbors. A very small part of the Mississippi population was in the Klan during the 1960’s, but they were very loud. Most Mississippians just stayed quiet, although most disagreed with what the Klan was doing. A part of what I attempted to do was to get those who were quiet, but opposed to Klan violence, to take a stand. I had the confidence of the FBI agents in Mississippi who were fighting Klan activity, The local FBI agent provided me a list of over 100 crimes the Klan had perpetrated in my home county. I drafted a statement condemning this violence and enlisted the District Attorney, the Sheriff, Mayor and Chief of Police to join me in the statement. We requested citizens to sign petitions that they were opposed to Klan violence and that they supported the rule of law. Many refused to sign saying they were for law and order, but it was not necessary to sign a statement so saying. It was just their way of not taking a stand. Law and order had broken down.
We prosecuted Klansmen when we could get evidence. The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in my home county by Sam Bowers, with himself as the Imperial Wizard, because he thought the regular Klan was not violent enough. He was described as the most violent Klansman to ever don a white robe. When Bowers was tried for the firebombing death of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in the late 1960’s, I testified that Bowers had a bad reputation for peace and violence. As a result of my opposition to the Klan, the Klan threatened to give me a whipping and to defeat me in political races. After I condemned Klan violence I did lose my next election. Fortunately I was never whipped by the Klan.
A friend of mine became an FBI informant and attended clandestine Klan meetings for the FBI. He later told me that he would come by our home late at night after attending Klan meetings where the members had been stirred up into a frenzy by raw, racial venom to make sure that none of the “crazies” were coming by to set fire to our home. At the time we had three young children. Again, fortunately, the Klan never attacked our home. The family of Vernon Dahmer and many other African Americans were not so fortunate. Today, it is difficult to imagine what it was like during that time.
There were some who were surprised by my stand as they could not conceive a fellow southerner taking a stand on this hot and divisive issue. However, I think most, even Klan members, did not expect me to take a different stand. They did not even approach me as they did some other office holders that I knew. I think the Klan perceived that I had strong convictions and could not be swayed. They did not approach me. They did condemn me in their publications and urge my defeat at the polls, but they never came and asked me to look the other way.
It was my faith that motivated me during those times. I believe very much in the teachings of Jesus Christ. These teachings require that we love our fellow man and we treat all as we would like to be treated.. I must confess that prior to that time I had not been involved, but when violence came I had to make a choice, to take a stand. It was a moral crossroads. It was the right thing to do. I never considered doing anything else.
Q: What are your thoughts now on Freedom Summer and the effort to end the disenfranchisement of black voters?
A: There are those who say that if outsiders had stayed away and not interfered, we would have solved our race problem. That is not true. Segregation would not have been defeated if it had not been for the pressure that was brought by the “freedom riders.” Further the issue would not have been solved had it not been for the strong presence of the FBI. But neither would it have been solved without the help of local law enforcement officials who took their oaths of office seriously. Although there were law enforcement officers who were in the Klan, or Klan sympathizers, most local law enforcement either tried to do their job, or at least stay clear. But the real heroes were the older African Americans who found the courage to go register and vote. When blacks started voting in large numbers the climate changed.
Q: Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a major provision of the Voting Rights Act — a major legacy of Freedom Summer — in part because it felt Congress had not ensured the law kept up with the times. How did you feel about this ruling? Do you support the current effort to amend the VRA?
I really do not know of anywhere in the south that black voters do not have the same access to vote as they do in Boston and New York or elsewhere. One of our problems as a nation is that when we pass legislation to correct a problem it continues with a bureaucracy after the need passes. I realize that with some this will be a controversial statement, with others an understatement. But I think it true. However, I am not naïve enough not to realize, as was said so long ago, the price of liberty is “eternal vigilance”.
Q: The Jackson airport is now named after Medgar Evers and a memorial to him in the airport says that in Mississippi reconciliation is a work in progress. Do you agree with this? If so, in what ways do you think that reconciliation has happened and what work is left to do?
A: Mississippi of 2014 is far different than Mississippi of the 1960’s. Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state. There are numerous black officials who are elected in districts with majority white populations. There are many organizations in Mississippi that promote racial reconciliation and better race relations; among these are Mission Mississippi, a faith based group, and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. I am currently on the Board of Mission Mississippi and was involved when the Winter Institute was formed. After my confirmation battle I swore in the elected officials of Boy’s State. The majority of the delegates were white, but the majority of the elected officials were black.
A few years ago a fully bi-racial group in Philadelphia, Mississippi, planned and carried out a very moving and emotional event to recognize and memorialize the three civil rights workers who were killed there in 1964. Not only was the Jackson airport named after slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers, but his home county of Newton, which is predominately white, erected a memorial to Medgar Evers.
In 2004, I organized a number of Mississippians, black and white, Democrat and Republicans, who successfully petitioned to have Clyde Kinnard exonerated. Clyde Kinnard, a Black Korean War veteran, attempted during the 1950’s to enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi. Instead of being enrolled, he was convicted, on trumped up charges of grand larceny –stealing chicken feed — and sent to the state penitentiary. Mr. Kinnard developed cancer and died. Although belatedly, we cleared his name
Many who perpetrated racial crimes of violence during the 1960’s have been retried and convicted. Some died in the penitentiary; others are still there. Mississippi has attempted to, and has, corrected injustices from the past.
Q: The politics around your appointment to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals must have been bruising for you. You had supporters and opponents, it seems, on both sides of the aisle, and the nomination provoked different viewpoints from the national and local chapters of the NAACP. Thomas Sowell wrote of the nomination that “Judge Charles Pickering, a federal judge in Mississippi who defended the civil rights of blacks for years and defied the Ku Klux Klan back when that was dangerous, was depicted as a racist when he was nominated for a federal appellate judgeship. No one even mistakenly thought he was a racist. The point was simply to discredit him for political reasons — and it worked.” What did you make of it all? And how do you want to be remembered on the question of racial justice?
A: I have a good record of fighting for equal rights and promoting better race relations, a record of which I am proud. It was extremely disappointing to be subjected in the Halls of Congress and on the national news to characterization as a throwback to the days of racial injustice. It was wrong in the l950’s and 1960’s for southern politicians to demagogue the race issue for political gain, and it was wrong in the first decade of the 21st Century for ideologues to demagogue race in order to further a political objective. My opposition was over the abortions issue, but my opponents did not want to come across as one-issue fanatics, so they sought to demonize me and destroy my reputation.
Quite frequently I was asked if it did not bother me that I was being falsely accused. My response was always that it would bother me more if the accusations were true. After Mike Wallace did a segment on me and my record on civil rights on CBS “60 Minutes,” a very positive and visual program, members of the Congressional Black Caucus told my son, who was then a congressman, that they had done his dad an injustice and that they were going to correct it. I knew that the groups who had spent so much time to discredit and demonize me would never let it happen, and it didn’t. My confirmation battle lasted for four long years, after which I was forced to retire from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lest it come across that I am angry or down, let me make it abundantly clear, God is faithful. God is gracious and kind, and life is good. Although my retirement was not of my choosing, there is life after the “robe,” after the “gavel.” For five years after my retirement from the bench, I practiced law half time with a large, respected regional firm. I still engage in a limited law practice.
After I was off the bench, I could speak out, and I did. I wrote two books on judicial confirmation, Supreme Chaos and The Judiciary in Jeopardy
I would be derelict if I did not mention one other thing. Political dialogue in our nation has reached an all-time low. It is bitter and acrimonious. The battle over the confirmation of judges contributed greatly to the lack of collegiality that exists in the U.S. Senate today. It is one thing to talk disparagingly about a bill or an issue, but it is something altogether different when an attempt is made to destroy or dehumanize another human being. Harry Reid (though not the only one and not the one who attacked me most viciously) has contributed to this as much or more than anyone else. We need to start calling out those who make malicious, divisive statements just as we call out those who make intemperate racial statements. If we cannot discuss serious political issues with civility we are not likely to find a solution. The need to restore civility in our political discussions is one of the paramount needs we face as a nation. We cannot solve many of our pressing problems until this is done.
How would I like to be remembered on the question of racial justice: I would like it to be remembered that in the 1960’s, when I was in my 20’s, I fought racial injustice at a time when that was not an easy thing to do; that during the first part of the 21sth century, when I was in my 60’s, I fought racial demagoguery to the fullest extent that I could; and that now, in the second decade of the 21st century, while I am in my late 70’s, I continue to work to promote better race relations and understanding.
Joe Sexton is a senior editor at ProPublica. Before coming to ProPublica in 2013, he had worked for 25 years as a reporter and editor at The New York Times.