Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on October 30, 2003
Mr. President, I come at this a little differently than the senators from Mississippi. I don't know Charles Pickering. I've met him briefly only twice. But I care about the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, so I have studied his record diligently. Nearly 40 years ago, I was a law clerk on the circuit to the great Judge John Minor Wisdom. I've been trying to think of something to say to the members on the other side that would help them to change their minds on this. Judge Wisdom was a member of the federal court that ordered James Meredith to be admitted to Ole Miss. The Fifth Circuit played a crucial role in the peaceful desegregation of the South. Judges Tuttle and Rives and Brown and Wisdom were real heroes during that time. Crosses were burned in front of their homes—I'll have more to say about this—but Judge Pickering is a worthy successor to the court of Judge Wisdom, Judge Tuttle, Judge Rives and Judge Brown. All those judges were ordering the desegregation of Deep South schools while crosses were being burned in front of their homes. Judge Pickering was enrolling his children in those same newly desegregated schools. And Judge Pickering, in his home town, was testifying in court against Sam Bower - the man the Baton Rouge Advocate called the "most violent living racist" at a time when people were killing people based on race. Many of my generation have changed their minds about race in the South over the last 40 years. That's why the opposition to Judge Pickering to me seems so blatantly unfair. He hasn't changed his mind. There's nothing to forgive him for. There's nothing to condemn. There's nothing to excuse. He was not a product of his times- he led his times. He spoke out for racial justice. He testified against the most dangerous of the cross burners. He did it in his own home town, with his own neighbors, at a time in our nation's history when it was hardest to do. He stuck his neck out for civil rights. Mr. President, will our message to the world be stick out your neck for civil rights for Mississippi in the 1960's, and then we'll cut your neck off in the United States Senate in 2003—all in the name of civil rights? I certainly hope not. Charles Pickering earned this nomination. He is a worthy successor to the court of Judge Wisdom, Judge Tuttle, Judge Rives and Judge Brown. I care about this case because I care about the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Many of the senators know or knew Judge John Minor Wisdom. They knew what a great judge he was. They knew what the times were like in the Deep South during the 1960's and 1970's. I remember Judge Wisdom once telling me that the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross in the intersection between his home and that of Congressman Hale Boggs who was with us and said, "They were getting both of us with one cross burning." So I set out some time ago, with my staff, to look through the record of Judge Pickering to see what he has done. All the evidence, Mr. President, is that Judge Pickering—like Judge Wisdom, like Judge Tuttle, like Judge Rives, like Judge Brown—stuck his neck out for civil rights at a time when it was hardest to do. Mississippians know that. William Winter, who I served with, a leading former governor, a leader for racial justice, strongly supports Judge Pickering. Frank Hunger, who served on that court with me as a law clerk back in the 1960's, who was President Clinton's Deputy Attorney General and Al Gore's brother-in law, strongly supports Judge Pickering. Now I've lived in that region—the South—for a long time. About the same amount of time as Judge Pickering. I've learned to tell those who are racists, those who stood silently by and those who stuck their necks out. Let me invite my colleagues to go back with me to Mississippi, to the late 1960's. James Meredith had just become the only black to graduate from the undergraduate school at Ole Miss. Reuben Anderson, who has endorsed Judge Pickering, had just become the first black graduate of the Ole Miss Law School. In Nashville, where I had gone to school at Vanderbilt, had just graduated the first integrated class from Vanderbilt University. Perhaps you saw the movie, "Mississippi Burning." That was 1967, in Mississippi, Mr. President. Civil rights workers—Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney—were murdered. To this day no one's ever really been tried for those murders. Wes Pruden, a young reporter at the time, told me he went to a Mississippi courtroom and everybody in the courtroom except the judge had a button on that said "Never." That was the environment in which Charles Pickering was living in Laurel, in late 1967. Blacks were just beginning to serve on juries. A few blacks voted. Schools were being desegregated one grade at a time. Race was not a theoretical issue or a political issue. People were killing people based on race in the late 1960's at that time in Jones County, Mississippi. The White Citizens Council was out to resist integration. But that wasn't enough for Sam Bowers. Sam Bowers also lived in that area. He created the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan because he believed the regular Klan wasn't mean enough, wasn't violent enough. The White Knights were set out to oppose racial integration "by any means necessary." Mr. President, we've heard a lot of talk about terrorists in the last few months. We had terrorists then. Sam Bowers and the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Laurel, Mississippi were the terrorists of the 1960's. The FBI said the White Knights were responsible for at least ten killings then. The Times of London said Bowers himself was suspected in the orchestration of 300 bombings. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, he was America's "most violent living racist." And Charles Pickering made public statements condemning Klan violence. He worked with the FBI to prosecute and stop that. In the late 1960's, Bowers came up for trial for the murder of a slain civil rights worker, Vernon Dahmer, and Judge Pickering testified publicly against Bowers. Mr. President, I ask for unanimous consent to submit for the record two documents. The first is a Klan newsletter from 1967 criticizing Pickering for cooperating with the FBI. The second is Mr. Bowers' Motion for Recusal filed in federal court asking Pickering to recuse himself from hearing in a case involving Sam Bowers because of Pickering's previous testimony against Bowers and taking credit for defeating Judge Pickering in a statewide race for attorney general. Mr. President, I won't dwell on the lifelong record of Mr. Pickering. That wasn't an isolated incident. I won't dwell on the charge that some have made about a 1994 case—Senator Hatch dealt with that. Let me just say, Mr. President, that in terms of the struggle for equality and freedom, I've seen the South and our nation change for the better, during our lifetime. I've tried to help bring about that change. And when I look back now, it seems embarrassingly slow and amazing that it was so hard. I remember as a student in Vanderbilt in 1962, that when we raised the issue of integrating the student body - the student body voted no. I remember that in 1980, I appointed the first black Tennessee Supreme Court Justice, and he was defeated in the next election. I remember that it was 1985 before we had the Martin Luther King holiday, and the legislature nearly voted it down. And it was 1989 before the University of Tennessee had any black vice presidents. Many of the men and women who are judges, who are mayors, who are legislators, who are senators today opposed integration in the 1950's—would be against the Voting Rights Act in the 1960's. They were against the Martin Luther King holiday in the 80's, and we welcome them to society today. We have confirmed some of them to the federal bench—some of them democrats, some of them republicans—and what is especially ironic about this incident is that Judge Pickering was not one of those people whose ideas we have to excuse. He led his times. He spoke out. He would have, I am certain, joined Judge Widsom, Judge Tuttle, Judge Rives and Judge Brown in ordering Ole Miss to admit James Meredith to the University of Mississippi 40 years ago. Why would we not now, recognize, this man who lived in the Deep South, who did what we all hope we would have had the courage to do but might not have done in the late 1960's? Why would we not now honor and recognize that service by confirming his nomination to this Appellate Court? I care about the court. I care about these issues. I have studied the record as carefully as I could. All the evidence supports the fact that Charles Pickering is a worthy successor on the Fifth Circuit to the court of Judge John Minor Wisdom, Judge Elbert Tuttle, Judge Richard Rives and Judge John R. Brown. Thank you Mr. President.