Shoe's on the other foot, putting the pinch on GOP

March 23, 2002|By Gregory Kane

THOSE FOLKS you see walking around with their schnozzolas out of joint these days would be us conservatives, still smarting at the defeat of Judge Charles Pickering's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Pickering is a federal judge in Mississippi who testified against a Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard during the 1960s -- the tail end of the state's hang-'em-high days. His supporters, many of them black, said Pickering advocated desegregation of public schools, nudged white-owned banks to lend to blacks and, according to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "created after-school programs for troubled youths."

President Bush's nomination of Pickering to fill a vacancy on the 5th Circuit crashed and burned this month, when the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the nomination by a 10-9 vote. Conservatives have been in a snit ever since, grousing about how those liberals and Democrats are up to their old tricks.

Before Pickering, we local conservatives got a chance to hop on our little anti-political correctness hobbyhorses and sally forth to battle the forces of evil --in this case, the black politicians who were upset over the now infamous "Healy memo" issued by a Baltimore police major, who instructed his charges to stop every black male at a bus stop.

Political correctness run amok, conservatives harrumphed. Black politicians out to get a white police major fired, they sneered.

Conservatives being stupid again on the matter of race, I say.

Oh, it's not limited to conservatives. Liberal Democrats do it too. Even some African-American liberal Democrat leaders are guilty of being stupid on the matter of race. But in the Healy matter, it's the conservatives who take the prize. If you don't see anything wrong with a memo that says, in effect, every black male is by definition a suspect, you've earned the prize.

On the matter of Pickering, it's more difficult to say who should get the prize. The judge's supporters, black and white, had some valid arguments. One of those supporters was Charles Evers, older brother of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, who was fatally shot by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith in 1963.

But Mississippi's NAACP branches in 2002 "vigorously advocated" for Pickering's defeat, according to a press release the organization made available March 14.

"There were 140 branches in the state that were very concerned about Pickering's record on voting rights," said John White, a spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Mississippi Conference of Branches issued a resolution on Pickering's nomination that read:

"Judge Pickering's hostility to civil and voting rights continued when he became a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. He has questioned the role of federal courts in enforcing voting rights and has openly criticized the one-person, one-vote doctrine. Additionally, he has demonstrated a passionate reluctance to protect the rights of victims of employment discrimination."

On the matter of one-person, one-vote, Pickering's views may simply be in accord with those who believe that as a republic, not a democracy, America doesn't have one-person, one-vote. The NAACP Mississippi Conference of Branches -- and those in Texas and Louisiana (part of the 5th Circuit) that also lobbied against Pickering -- might have had a better case if they had pointed to Pickering's support for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.

Some critics contended that Pickering had a close relationship with members of the Sovereignty Commission. Pickering has denied it and said that his contacts with commission members were "incidental." But other news accounts said Pickering voted to fund the commission when he was a state legislator, and that is sin enough.

Mississippi's Sovereignty Commission was not some misguided collection of rubes simply committed to preserving segregation. One writer called the commission a "boondocks Gestapo." The boondocks reference may be an overstatement. The Gestapo part may be understatement.

In the 1950s and 1960s -- and possibly into the 1970s, when it was disbanded -- the commission spied on citizens whose only crime was to advocate integration. It kept 124,000 pages of files on 87,000 people. Medgar Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, in her autobiography Watch Me Fly, wrote that the commission's files on her and Medgar Evers numbered more than 1,500 pages.

There's more. Members of this commission assisted Beckwith's defense lawyers in his trial for the murder of Evers by screening potential jurors for their racial views. If Pickering were a liberal Democrat nominated by President Bill Clinton, we pretty much know what the reaction of Republicans and conservatives would be.

That, in essence, is what the fight for and against Pickering's nomination has been about. When Republicans had control of the Senate, they voted down many of Clinton's nominees for political reasons.

The shoe's on the other foot now, and Republicans are finding out what a witch payback can be.

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