June 3, 2003
Since the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott as Senate majority leader for racially divisive remarks, the Republican Party has continued to show its insensitivity towards civil rights and people of color.
President Bush has decided to renominate the controversial Charles W. Pickering to the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Pickering, a federal district judge in Mississippi and a protege of Lott, has a record of opposition to civil rights and should not be confirmed to the nation's second-highest court.
Last year, amidst protest from civil-rights groups, the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected Pickering for the bench, and with good reason.
As a college student at the University of Mississippi, Pickering wrote a law journal article on how the state of Mississippi could get around a court decision invalidating the age-old ban on interracial marriages.
In 1964, Pickering left the Democratic Party and joined the GOP when the Democrats tried to integrate the all-white Mississippi delegation to the national convention. And Pickering was once a law partner of an avowed segregationist, former Mississippi Lt. Gov. J. Carroll Gartin.
What's more, Pickering was linked to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a now-defunct state agency that supported white supremacy and blocked the enforcement of federal desegregation and voting-rights laws after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The notorious commission spied on, and infiltrated, civil-rights groups and labor organizations, and harassed African Americans. In 1963, the commission helped screen potential jurors in the trial of Byron de la Beckwith, the self-proclaimed racist who twice escaped punishment for the murder of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers before he was finally convicted in 1994.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Pickering demonstrated "glaring racial insensitivity" in his handling of a 1994 cross-burning case. Pickering sought a lighter sentence for a defendant who burned a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple.
"We are deeply concerned that Judge Pickering's record reflects a continuing judicial insensitivity -- even hostility -- toward key principles and remedies that safeguard the civil rights of all Americans," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
But the Bush administration dismisses criticism of the Pickering nomination. "This controversy, if there is one, about Judge Pickering, I submit to you, this has nothing -- nothing -- to do with race and everything to do with the ideology of a few liberal Democrats," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "This is not about race. It's about ideology."
But Bush and the Republicans can't have it both ways. They can't claim that they want to reach out to blacks, Latinos and other minority groups on the one hand, and then on the other embrace outdated notions about race and promote anti-civil-rights candidates and agendas.
Unfortunately, many Republicans seem like they cannot wean themselves off of a Southern Strategy, which encourages them to race-bait and exploit the racial paranoia of white voters.
On Martin Luther King's birthday, Bush declared his opposition to affirmative action and his support for white plaintiffs in a Supreme Court case that could strike down diversity policies at the University of Michigan.
Now, in an effort to stack the federal courts with ultraconservatives who oppose civil rights, he has renominated Pickering and 30 other judicial candidates who were rejected by the Senate last year.
If Bush and the Republicans are allowed to place people such as Pickering on the federal bench, they set the clock back on civil rights.
David A. Love is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he was the president of the Black Law Students Association.