Republican presidential frontrunner Ben Carson announced on Friday that he has named former federal judge Charles W. Pickering to serve as his Mississippi state chair. In a statement, Carson said he is grateful for the retired judge’s “trust and confidence,” and Pickering said Carson has the “integrity and moral authority to lead and bring America together.”
But Pickering, the new campaign leader who hopes help the only black candidate in the 2016 race to bring the country together, has a troubled history of racism and support for segregation. Most notably, he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and attacked advocates who were working to end Jim Crow during the 1960s.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Rogelio Solis, File
When former President George W. Bush appointed Pickering to the Fifth Circuit in 2004, Senate Democrats voted to reject his nomination, pointing to his shameful racist past. At the time, Pickering attempted to disavow his past to secure the nomination, telling the Senate in 2002 that he has been “trying to establish better race relations” in his home state of Mississippi. But Democrats questioned whether the move was political and Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz uncovered evidence, reported in Salon at the time, that Pickering lied about his efforts to disavow white supremacy and improve race relations in Mississippi.
The evidence showed that Pickering left the Democratic Party in 1964 to protest the party’s support for civil rights and renouncement of segregation — part of his history that he did not admit to during his Senate confirmation hearings, despite repeated questioning from Democratic lawmakers.
According to Wilentz’s investigation in Salon, papers belonging to his former law partner, J. Carroll Gartin, uncovered the truth about Pickering’s past and proved how much information he had not shared about his racist past:
Gartin’s papers show conclusively that, contrary to [Sen. Mitch] McConnell’s description, Pickering himself was one of those “white citizens and politicians who resisted integration and civil rights,” not someone working to oppose such forces. Instead of “trying to establish better race relations” in the 1960s, Pickering worked to support segregation, attack civil rights advocates who sought to end Jim Crow, and back those who opposed national civil rights legislation, above all the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Or, in the words of a public statement he signed in 1967, Pickering wanted to preserve “our southern way of life,” and he bitterly blamed civil rights workers for stirring up “turmoil and racial hatred” in the South.
In the 1960s, Wilentz continued, Pickering was a one of the “sophisticated segregationists.”
This key point of his political history wasn’t the only thing he omitted from his confirmation hearings. Pickering also called Gartin, who was a devoted segregationist, a “progressive” political leader during the hearings. Under examination by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), Pickering eventually admitted this was false.
Pickering also testified that he worked closely with the FBI in the 1960s to prosecute the Klu Klux Klan (KKK). Although true, he distorted the truth when he testified that he contacted Mississippi’s notoriously racist Sovereignty Commission about possible KKK infiltration of a union in his hometown — Wilentz reported that Pickering actually contacted the commission about union infiltration by a well-known civil rights organization, not the KKK.
Pickering isn’t the first person with a troubled past who Carson has appointed to his campaign. Last month, Carson announced the members of his “medical coalition” and ThinkProgress found that most of the members are vocal Obamacare opponents or anti-vaccine proponents. One person on the coalition, pharmacist Robert Henderson, serves on the national council of the John Birch Society, a fringe group the Southern Poverty Law Center says was exiled by the conservative movement half a century ago because of its racist and anti-Semitic roots.
Despite Carson’s controversial appointments and his belief that the Black Lives Matter movement is “silly” and “sickening,” a Carson aide has said that his success in the primary is proof that America is “not racist.”