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Jesse Helms' Shameful Legacy Can't Be Whitewashed

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The urge to speak no ill of the dead is a powerful one. And it was on full display this week as former Senator Jesse Helms was laid to rest. Although one brave North Carolina state employee, L.F. Eason, resisted that urge when he refused to lower the flag at his state lab to honor Helms and was forced to retire.

Republican leaders including Vice President Cheney attended Helms' funeral. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky eulogized Helms as one of the "kindest men" in Congress, and said, "no matter who you were, he always had a thoughtful word and a gentle smile."

Which is a load of crap. Clearly, McConnell saw the charming face Helms could present to the world when he wanted to. But the real Jesse Helms oozed out nearly every time he opened his mouth to slander those who didn't agree with him. He claimed "crime rates and irresponsibility among Negroes are a fact of life which must be faced" in a 1981 New York Times interview, and in 1963 asked, "Are civil rights only for Negroes? White women in Washington who have been raped and mugged on the streets in broad daylight have experienced the most revolting sort of violation of their civil rights."

Helms reserved his full disgust for gays and lesbians, who he called "weak, morally sick wretches" (1994), accused of engaging in "incredibly offensive and revolting conduct" (1990), and warned his constituents to beware "homosexuals, lesbians, disgusting people marching in the streets, demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other" (1990).

Beyond his hateful words, Helms' bigotry was shown by his political aims. He led the opposition to the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, and consistently opposed civil rights legislation. For nearly two decades, he fought tooth and nail against expanded federal funding for AIDS research, and exploited gays and lesbians as convenient scapegoats in his constant fear-mongering crusade.

Helms at 1990 campaign rally, moments after calling gays "disgusting people"

Media post-mortems of Helms' career were mostly deferential, especially in North Carolina, the state he represented in the Senate for five terms. N.C. television stations and newspapers glossed over almost all of Helms' ugly history as the last unapologetically racist politician of the segregation era. Even the liberal Raleigh News & Observer kept its gloves on, despite having been Helms' favorite press punching bag for years.

It was largely a repeat of the softball treatment Helms got when he announced his retirement in 2001. Then, the Washington Post called Helms "one of the most powerful conservatives on Capitol Hill for three decades," and the New York Times said he'd been "a conservative stalwart for nearly 30 years." But they avoided serious discussion of how Helms stirred the pot of bigotry and hatred to win elections and further his political career.

Helms grew up in small town Monroe, N.C., home to an active Ku Klux Klan. His father, known as Mr. Jesse, was the police chief and a mean, imposing 6' 4" man who didn't hesitate to intimidate and run roughshod over the civil rights of Monroe's black citizens.

Jesse A. Helms, Sr.

In North Carolina historian Tim Tyson's biography of civil rights leader Robert Williams, head of the Monroe NAACP, Williams described watching when he was eleven years old as Mr. Jesse beat a black woman on the street, then "dragged her off to the nearby jailhouse, her dress up over her head." He was haunted for years by the woman's "tortured screams as the flesh was ground away from the friction of the concrete."

Interviewed in 2005 for the documentary Senator No and asked about Monroe in the 1920s and 30s, Helms said, "In so many ways I think the relationship between the races was far better than it is now. I could give you a thousand examples of why I'm convinced of that. I don't know of anybody who ever persecuted anybody of another race."

Helms had his first brush with statewide politics in 1950. Employed as a radio reporter for conservative magnate A.J. Fletcher's WRAL network, he unofficially aided right wing Raleigh attorney Willis Smith in his primary campaign against incumbent U.S. Senator and North Carolina liberal hero Frank Porter Graham.

Graham beat Smith in the initial Democratic primary, and Smith had all but decided not to call for a runoff. But three Supreme Court decisions undermining segregation were announced within weeks, inflaming racial tensions in the South. Helms took to the airwaves and urged Smith's voters to assemble at his Raleigh house and ask him to reconsider. A mob of supporters responded, and Smith called for a runoff.

Handbill created by Jesse Helms for Willis Smith's 1950 campaign

In the runoff, Helms used the skills he had learned as a reporter to help create scurrilous, race-baiting ads and handbills for Smith's candidacy. One was headlined, "White People - Wake Up Before It's Too Late," and asked, "Do you want negroes working beside you, your wife and daughters in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races." The most infamous was a flyer featuring a fake photo, doctored to show Sen. Graham's wife dancing with a black man. Helms and his backers later went to great lengths to cover up his role in the Smith campaign, but as biographer Ernest Furgurson put it, "Jesse was in it up to his neck." Helms went to Washington with the victorious Sen. Willis Smith, hired as his top assistant.

Throughout the 1960s, Helms denounced the civil rights movement from his bully pulpit as the most widely known TV and radio commentator in North Carolina. He delivered snarling five-minute commentaries that were broadcast twice a day at the end of WRAL's newscasts, railing against integration, liberals, and anything the Kennedys said or did. Helms' diatribes were reprinted in newspapers throughout North Carolina and the South with titles like "Nation Needs to Know of Red Involvement in Race Agitation!"

He called civil rights workers "Communists and sex perverts," claimed there was "evidence that the Negroes and whites participating in the march to Montgomery participated in sex orgies of the rawest sort," and commented "they should ask their parents if it would be all right for their son or daughter to marry a Negro," in response to students holding campus vigils when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

Helms won election to the U.S. Senate in 1972 after tying his Greek American opponent to George McGovern and using the slogan, "Jesse Helms: He's One of Us!" He was soon dubbed "Senator No" for his votes against government spending on social programs, including education, environmental protection, school lunches, food stamps, and aid to the disabled.

During the 1976 presidential campaign, Helms and his political organization, the National Congressional Club, made a lasting impact on American politics by helping Ronald Reagan come from behind to win the North Carolina primary. This victory sparked a surge for Reagan in the late contests that almost led to his unseating President Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee. It sealed Reagan's position as the 1980 frontrunner following Ford's narrow general election loss to Jimmy Carter.

Button from 1976 Republican Convention

To win North Carolina, the Helms machine went all out. They ran hard-hitting attack ads slamming Ford over the Panama Canal Treaty. And of course, Helms used racially coded appeals. Tens of thousands of leaflets were distributed that alleged Ford was considering picking a black running mate.

In the late 70s, Helms was a strong supporter of the apartheid regime in South Africa. He voted against virtually every U.S. measure ever proposed to pressure the white minority government, no matter how mild. Speaking against an attempt to impose economic sanctions, Helms claimed, "all this bill does is exacerbate the situation in South Africa." Referring to anti-apartheid protests, he asked, "who are we to be so pious about the efforts of the South African government to stop the riots, the looting, the shooting and the mayhem that's going on over there?"

N.C. students protesting apartheid cross paths with Helms, 1984

Helms filibustered against renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1982. The next year, he made national headlines and drew heavy criticism when he led the charge against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday.

In his 1984 re-election fight against sitting N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt, Helms went to the mat in a knock-down, drag-out campaign remembered as one of the nastiest campaigns in modern history. Perhaps realizing he had overreached in his overt displays of racism, Helms dialed back his attacks on blacks and minorities, although he still stirred up fear of voter registration drives associated with Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign.

But Helms had found a even scarier bogeyman - the homosexual menace. He and his supporters repeatedly linked Jim Hunt to gay activists and took every opportunity to "throw rocks at the gays," as the N.C. Republican Party chair explained Helms' strategy.

Helms at press conference, 1982

During the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis unfolded, Helms led the opposition in the U.S. Senate to increased federal funding for AIDS research. This was perhaps Jesse Helms' greatest crime, and left real blood on his hands. Even a modest increase in spending could have saved tens of thousands of gay Americans who died horrible, painful deaths in the years before effective AIDS drugs were developed.

In 1987 he said, "Somewhere along the line we're going to have to quarantine people with AIDS." Helms' uncaring response to the disease was explained by his tirade the next year against the bipartisan Kennedy-Hatch AIDS bill, when he claimed, "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy."

Helms continued to oppose AIDS funding throughout the 1990s. In 1995, he fought reauthorization of the Ryan White Act, saying AIDS victims contracted the disease through "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct." That same year nationally syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers called him out as a liar when she published a sharp rebuke to his efforts to cut AIDS funding, headlined "These are the facts, Sen. Helms."

Helms makes his point, 2002

Sadly, this account only scratches the surface of all Jesse Helms' shameful words and deeds. No amount of whitewashing Helms' legacy can erase the stain of his reliance on hate-filled, divisive politics, or the hurt he caused so many people in the process.

Erik Ose registered N.C. voters against Helms in the 1990s as co-founder of Musicians Organized for Voter Education (MOVE). Cross-posted at The Latest Outrage.