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FIRST-PERSON: The Charles Pickering I know

KENNER, La. (BP)–In 1967, as I resigned my church on a Louisiana bayou to move to the Mississippi Delta, some people thought I was committing suicide.

“It will be interesting to see how your message of God’s love for all races goes over up there,” one said.

Before long, I found that I had moved into the heart of White Citizens Council and Ku Klux Klan territory. Much of the state was like a powder keg. Martin Luther King Jr. was in his heyday and racial tensions ran high. Most of the good white folks in our churches, including the preachers — no, especially the preachers — kept quiet on racial matters.

Across the state a young county attorney was distinguishing himself by standing up for racial justice. Charles was a deacon and Sunday School teacher in his local church. He even took on the KKK by testifying in court against Sam Bowers, imperial wizard of the White Knights of the KKK, in the firebombing death of a civil rights activist named Vernon Dahmer.

Don’t know who the White Knights are? Back then, the regular Kluxers were not violent enough for these guys, so Sam Bowers led a breakaway group which, according to the FBI, was responsible for 10 killings in Mississippi in the 1960s. One did not decide to speak out against these people lightly. Some of them might be sitting in your church on Sunday or living next door to you. Charles did speak up, and for his troubles was defeated in the next election.

I got to know Charles in the 1970s when he chaired his church’s pastor search committee and I was one of their candidates. We developed a mutual respect that continues to this day. Then, 10 years later, Charles and I were in a run-off for president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, which he won. I regretted losing for about 30 seconds before realizing he was a better choice.

In one of Charles’ first acts as our leader, he contacted every state president around the country and set up meetings to iron out doctrinal issues that were threatening to destroy our denomination. He was a real leader and a peacemaker of the first degree.

The Mississippi public schools were desegregated in the early 1970s. Whites-only private academies popped up everywhere like buttercups in the spring. My wife and I were among the minority who kept our children in the public schools, as did Charles and his wife, Margaret Ann.

Over the years, Charles continued to forge a record of courageous leadership in many areas, particularly in the matter of racial reconciliation. Once, he gave the address at the annual meeting of the state chapter of the NAACP. At a time when politicians would talk out of both sides of their mouths — getting with the good old boys and smiling at their bigotry, meeting with the activists and pledging support for their agenda — Charles did not play that game. He set a high standard of integrity and courage.

Ten years ago, President George H.W. Bush appointed Charles as federal judge for the Southern District of Mississippi. Then, last year, President George W. Bush nominated him to a seat on the U.S. District Court of Appeals, which convenes here in New Orleans. I’m sure you’ve heard of him: Judge Charles Pickering.

Last year when the Democrats were in the majority, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up Charles Pickering’s confirmation. They interviewed him and heard from supporters and detractors. His opponents went over his record with a fine-toothed comb and finally located a couple of issues to use as fodder against him.

Incredibly, they accused him of racism. They did this, in spite of his courageous record through the years and the array of African American leaders from Mississippi who journeyed to Washington to support his nomination.

Eventually, the committee refused to even bring his name out of committee to allow the Senate to vote.

This year, showing incredible courage or callousness, depending on who’s speaking, President Bush resubmitted Pickering’s name to the Senate, where the Republicans are now in the majority. Personally, I am surprised that the judge has agreed to undergo the confirmation process all over again. This country is littered with the bodies of veterans of confirmation hearings who were so savagely beaten up and scarred that they vowed never again to subject themselves to this ordeal of fire. But Charles Pickering is no stranger to fire. He has walked through hotter flames than this.

Recently, C-Span featured the former director of the National Endowment for the Humanities describing his experience with the Senate confirmation process. It’s a brutal business, he said, from which no one emerges unscathed. At one point, a veteran Washington consultant told him, “Sir, this Senate confirmation is not about you. There are 535 dramas being played out on Capitol Hill, and you are not the star in any of them.”

Likewise, this is not about Judge Charles Pickering. It is about the kind of America we’re going to have. Morality, courage, justice, integrity — those are more than planks in a political platform. They are the very bedrock of this nation. Either that, or we’re in a lot of trouble.

(P.S. To write a word of encouragement to Judge Pickering, the address is U.S. District Court, 701 North Main, Suite 228, Hattiesburg, MS 39401.)
McKeever is pastor of First Baptist Church, Kenner, La., and a featured cartoonist on BP. Check out his cartoons at BP Life Lighter Side, www.bpnews.net/bpfun.asp?ID=JM.

    About the Author

  • Joe McKeever