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Chip Pickering finds irony in father’s rejection by panel

WASHINGTON (BP)–In Chip Pickering’s mind, the irony was inescapable as he witnessed the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee reject his father’s nomination for a federal appeals court judgeship.

“The reality is, not one member on that committee risked his life and career for the voting rights of African Americans,” said Pickering, a U.S. Republican representative from Mississippi. “My father’s life was threatened. His family’s safety was threatened. He lost his next political race.

“Not one member of that committee … has demonstrated the commitment to bring better race relations and racial reconciliation to their communities and state [that] my father has.”

Yet, opponents used Charles Pickering’s civil rights record — or a distortion of that record, many of the federal judge’s supporters charged — to build a case against him and provide at least part of the basis for 10 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee to vote against his nomination by President Bush to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Those opponents were guilty of a “despicable smear campaign and character assassination,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Rep. Chip Pickering sat through the four hours of discussion and voting by the committee that day.

“It was very difficult to sit there and hear distortions, mischaracterizations, just completely and simply false statements concerning my father and his record,” Pickering said in an interview with Baptist Press. “That part was difficult. At the same time, the statements of support, the statements that clarified the record and defended both his qualifications and his character were affirming.”

He was not the only one affected, the third-term congressman said.

“The attacks and distortions on his record, on his truly courageous work and commitment on race, and his outstanding qualifications both as a judge and an attorney left me and our family and people back home bewildered, saddened and disgusted that members of the Senate would allow those types of attacks to stand,” Pickering said.

“Having said that, it has been truly remarkable to see Mississippians, black and white, Democrat and Republican, stand in support of my father. It does show the spirit of reconciliation that he has worked to achieve.”

He came through that experience with a greater appreciation for his father.

A “remarkable aspect about my father is that his spirits are high,” Pickering said. “He believes good can come from this. He has no bitterness. And he provides another example of courage and character to his family and to his community.”

Charles Pickering demonstrated that courage and character in a variety of ways at the height of the effort for civil rights for blacks in 1960s Mississippi, his son said. His father “has been a courageous leader to ensure the equal protection of all people, fought to stop the Klan, worked to integrate our schools and churches and civic organizations, and then has been a leader in our state to heal the old wounds and bring about reconciliation among all Mississippians,” Pickering said.

Among those examples of courage was his testimony against Sam Bowers, imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Pickering testified in the trial of Bowers, who was charged with ordering the 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer, a black businessman who had been registering African Americans to vote. Pickering received threats as a result. James Charles Evers, brother of murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers, cited Pickering’s testimony against Bowers when he wrote a defense of the judge in The Wall Street Journal prior to the committee’s vote.

Bowers, who like Pickering lived in Laurel, Miss., supervised a “regional network responsible for thousands of violent acts,” Chip Pickering said. A racially diverse jury finally convicted Bowers of murder in 1998.

“I do know the actions of a father are the best way to teach and instruct his children, and my three sisters and I always took a great sense of pride that our father did the right thing in a difficult time,” Pickering said.

His father’s faith perspective and expression were fodder for some of the anti-confirmation campaign, Pickering said.

Father and son are both members of a Southern Baptist church, First Baptist in Laurel. Judge Pickering served as president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention for two years in the mid-1980s and as a member of the SBC’s Peace Committee during the height of the convention’s controversy. Congressman Pickering was a youth worker and language student with the SBC International Mission Board in communist-controlled Hungary for 16 months in 1987 and ’88.

Judge Pickering also has taken a pro-life position outside the courtroom.

“I am concerned that many of the special-interest groups and, unfortunately, the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee engaged in a religious profiling or exhibited prejudice, bias and hostility toward someone like my father, who has been a religious leader,” Chip Pickering said. “[A] person with a strong faith, in their view, is not someone who can separate his personal views and convictions from his responsibilities as a judge.”

They believe “a person with these religious convictions would be hostile or biased against their agenda, especially when it comes to the issue of abortion rights,” he said.

“I think the real basis for opposition to my father came from the abortion groups and the People for the American Way,” Pickering said. “They are, and have demonstrated a record of being, in opposition to nominees who have strong religious backgrounds.”

People for the American Way, he said, has “in my view, a distorted view of trying to keep people with such convictions out of public life or public positions. But they knew they could not defeat him on that basis, and that is where the civil rights issues and concerns were then grossly and unfairly made or raised, because my father has been a man of distinctive moral courage on the issue of race and on racial reconciliation.

“If we lose the ability to have people of deep conviction and faith in public office, then I have a great concern and fear about the health of our country,” Pickering said.

He acknowledged the battle over his father’s nomination was about what kind of judges would serve in the federal judiciary.

“My family, my father, we all realize this particular political battle has a much larger context and multiple forces converging to create the controversy, when really it is not about who my father is or really about his record,” Chip Pickering said.

In a written statement released after his father’s nomination was turned back by the committee March 14, Pickering said, “For those opposed to my father, who distorted his record or tried to use this process to extort political gain or to hold hostage his nomination in the attempt to ransom a future judge, I am deeply disappointed and saddened at their lack of character and their use of race to try to reopen old wounds and once again divide our state.

“The good news is that the leaders who attempt to divide and extort will not stand the test of time — for they are always rejected and exposed by history,” he said. “Mississippi rejected this type of leadership over a generation ago, and it will reject it in the present and in the future.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CHIP PICKERING.