Redemption merits confirmation

February 28, 2002|By Stan Tiner

Away down South "in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten."

TRUE. THOSE opening words to Dixie capture the spirit not only of the Old South, but of many contemporary Southerners as well.

"Forget? Never!" the bumper stickers say.

But the same could be said of folks in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. When people in those places think of the South, especially in a political or cultural context, the mind's eye sees names like Jefferson Davis and Bull Connor, and George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door.

As a Southerner who has spent the better part of 30 years editing newspapers in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, I bear witness to the fact that racism still lives in these parts.

Sadly, too, it lives elsewhere, in those Northern cities named, and in all the rest of America as well.

This nation still bleeds for the sin of slavery, for the omission of deeds we should have done and the commission of others we should not have done in those intervening years.

The river of pain flowing from that original sin sometimes ebbs, and sometimes rises, but it is never far from our consciousness or our conscience.

Charles Pickering, 64, a federal district judge who hails from Jones County in southern Mississippi, can attest to that. President Bush has nominated him to a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans. For those who oppose him, he is a tempting target, for all of those ghosts of Mississippi's past come suddenly to life with the awful thoughts of night riders, nooses and burning crosses.

Judge Pickering's words and actions four decades ago have become the thread upon which his opposition seeks to deny him confirmation.

Opponents such as the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus have cited several concerns with the nominee, but two incidents seem to raise the most serious questions involving his fitness for the appeals court judgeship.

In 1959, while a student at the University of Mississippi Law School, Mr. Pickering wrote a Law Review article examining interracial marriage. The article explored how the law should be amended "if it is to serve the purpose that the Legislature undoubtedly intended it to serve."

In 1964, the judge switched to the Republican Party, he later said, because of the "humiliation and embarrassment" he felt had been heaped on Mississippi when President Lyndon Johnson asked the all-white state Democratic delegation to give up two seats to blacks from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Today he regrets those words, utterances that can never be fully removed from the history of one man's life.

Perfection is a high standard. Charles Pickering did not achieve it.

Can any of us say we have?

But since that long-ago day and those failed utterances, he has been transformed. One cannot say for sure that he has had a change of heart, but of certainty it can be said he has been a changed man.

Since 1964, his public record has been exemplary by any standard.

He has courageously stood up to the Ku Klux Klan's imperial wizard, a stand that contributed to his subsequent defeat as district attorney.

He defended African-Americans in criminal cases that other white attorneys would not handle. He has worked with University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat to establish the Institute of Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss, and he serves on that board today.

In the cauldron of this firestorm over his nomination, he is supported by the largely black community in his hometown and by most black leaders in his home state. They have seen his actions up close for these many years, voices with great moral authority on such matters. They include Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

There is a plague of piousness afoot in our land today as politicians preen and pontificate before the cameras of so many committee rooms, preaching and prattling to cater to the public opinion of the moment.

Their sermons often seem more the words of the Pharisees than the thoughts of pure hearts. It is true of those who have cast their stones at Judge Pickering. You wonder if Abraham Lincoln or Hugo Black were seeking confirmation from these fellows whether either could stand the scrutiny of these modern Jacobins. Lincoln's own dreadful words would lash him like a whip ... words so awful they could not be printed today without stirring pain and bitterness. Certainly Black, a former Klansman, could not have stood their test.

Yet one - Lincoln - many have said was this country's greatest president; the Great Emancipator - the man who freed the slaves and whose leadership maintained the Union. And the other, Justice Black, became one of the leading civil libertarians in U.S. history, rendering opinions whose breadth and majesty extended the rights of African-Americans to their most expansive state.

The young American nation often embraced the idea of redemption, a sense of charity that extends to those who have a change of heart and who thereafter act in a way that is consistent with the "new way" they have embraced.

Charles Pickering should be confirmed because he is a good man whose past service is proof that he will render justice fairly to all and whose personal courage and record have earned him not only the nomination of his president, but the approbation of his countrymen.

Stan Tiner is executive editor of The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss. This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune publishing newspaper.

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