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Ghosts of Mississippi Haunt Pickering’s Nomination

by Joshua M. Zeitz on Mar 1, 2002

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.

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