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Published: Saturday, 10/6/2001

White a welcome dinner guest

DETROIT - For the Michigan Coalition on Human Rights, the choice of keynote speaker at their annual fund-raising dinner tonight seemed a brilliant one a month ago. The interfaith group of social activists had landed a distinguished jurist who had become famous because of what many Americans saw as his harsh and unfair treatment at the hands of the least popular member of the Bush cabinet.

Then the world changed. Suddenly, the nation was essentially at war with international terrorism. And the man they loved to hate, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, was on TV virtually every day, reporting on new legal developments in that war. Polls showed the popularity of George W. Bush, a man many believed an illegitimate, or at best, accidental, president a month ago, soaring off the charts.

What to do now?

The leaders of MCHR think the answer is clear. After all, they've been at the business of backing sometimes unpopular causes a long time. Twenty years ago, it all started when some religious leaders in the Detroit area were increasingly uncomfortable with the portrayal of the “Moral Majority” as representing religion in America.

So, they decided to do something about it.

Led by Episcopal Bishop Coleman McGehee, they launched the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights. The idea, longtime member Rudy Simons said last week, was to create an interfaith, multi-racial network of individuals and groups that would work primarily with the religious community for peace and justice causes.

They are, indeed, a proud bunch of what used to be called liberals, who sometimes find it easier to gain attention when conservatives are in power. They've battled U.S. backing of repressive regimes in Central America, fought against apartheid in South Africa, and opposed the trend to prosecute young children as adults.

But mostly they've worked to fight racial prejudice “at home and abroad,” noted the Rev. Harry Cook, another Episcopal priest who chaired MCHR. This year, they thought they'd landed the perfect speaker to kick off their annual fund-raising dinner: Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White, who became nationally famous during the battle over Mr. Ashcroft's confirmation hearings in January.

Two years ago, then-President Clinton issued what seemed a routine nomination of Mr. White to be a U.S. District Judge. But surprisingly, Mr. Ashcroft savaged Judge White, calling him “pro-criminal,” and charging he would work to thwart the death penalty and “improperly substitute personal politics for the law.”

Those charges seemed without merit; Mr. White had actually voted to affirm the death penalty in 41 of 59 cases he heard on Missouri's highest court.

Some said that Mr. Ashcroft was really bitterly opposed to Mr. White because of his pro-choice position. Others thought it was a cynical, law and order ploy, with elements of race-baiting, designed to help Mr. Ashcroft win re-election last year. In any event, the nomination was doomed.

This week, I asked Judge White whether he felt he'd have to modify his message because of the war. Not at all, he said.

He would talk tonight, he told me, in much the way he had to the U.S. Senate during Mr. Ashcroft's confirmation hearings last January.

Among his words then: “After decades of public service, I come before you today more deeply committed than ever to the rule of law. When I was 10 years old, I stood up to the bullies who made mean-spirited comments and tried to drive me away. Today, I am here to stand up for my record, my reputation as a judge, and as a citizen.”

Somehow I think he'll be more than worth hearing.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.



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