Jesse Helms’ Bitter Soul to be Laid to Rest

Published July 7, 2008

Posted July 7, 2008 – Former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina lawmaker who civil rights leaders viewed as one of the most virulent racists of his era, will be laid to rest Tuesday in a private burial following funeral services in Raleigh, N.C.

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Helms, a conservative Republican senator who spent his political career battling everything from voting rights to affirmative action, died Friday at the age of 86. He had been seriously ill in recent years.

Fellow Republican George W. Bush offered kind words for Helms, who in 2002 announced that he would not run for a sixth term in the U.S. Senate. “Throughout his long public career, Sen. Jesse Helms was a tireless advocate for the people of North Carolina, a stalwart defender of limited government and free enterprise, a fearless defender of a culture of life, and an unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty," Bush said in a written statement. "Under his leadership, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a powerful force for freedom. And today, from Central America to Central Europe and beyond, people remember – in the dark days when the forces of tyranny seemed on the rise, Jesse Helms took their side.”

But the president’s glowing remembrance of Helms as "a kind, decent, and humble man" didn’t jibe with the late senator’s legacy. For example, in 1950, as a 29-year-old researcher and political junky, he landed a gig working for Conservative Democrat Willis Smith’s Senate primary campaign against Frank Porter Graham. His crowning achievement was an ad that read, "White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races." But to make sure the message stuck, Helms tweaked pictures of Graham to make it look as if Graham's wife had danced with a Black man, according to Wikipedia. And, in another particularly offensive moment, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling banning segregated public accommodations, Helms wrote, "To rob the Negro of his reputation of thinking through a problem in his own fashion is about the same as trying to pretend that he doesn't have a natural instinct for rhythm and for singing and dancing."

But you don’t have to go back more than a half-century for proof of Helms’ disdain for civil rights initiatives.  Helms was one of the most outspoken opponents of a holiday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1982, he was among a handful of recalcitrant senators opposing an extension of the Voting Rights Act. In 1990, Helms ran the infamous “pink slip” TV ad in his nationally publicized re-election campaign against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, an African American. As the image on the screen showed a pair of White hands balling up a job pink slip, the announcer said: "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority, because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is. Gantt supports Ted Kennedy's racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications."

Speaking to CNN on Friday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said that Helms "was a talented man. A man of considerable power. But he used his powers to maintain the order of the Old South. It was divisive. We offer condolences to his bereaved family, but the senator had a chance to move toward a more perfect union and he chose the Confederacy."

Joe Boyce, who served as South bureau chief for Time magazine in the 1980s and covered the late senator, said, “I'll call Jesse Helms a racist,” Richard Prince reported in his online column, Journal-isms. Boyce said that every thing about Helms was not bad. He was a “good family man” and even played with Black kids as a child, Boyce said. But “a look at his vitriolic rhetoric when it came to race relations and civil rights left no doubt in my mind that this guy was a bigot of the first order. And he had no scruples about using racial division and prejudice for his own political gain as a candidate and senator. He may have loved his wife and daughters and his adopted son, with whom he liked to spend quiet evenings popping popcorn and watching TV, and his only vice may have been an affinity for Lucky Strike cigarettes, but this was a mean-spirited, angry White supremacist and proud of it. May we never see his ilk again in Congress.”

In his memoirs, which were published in 2005, Helms described himself as "not the least bit racist."

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Written by BET-Staff

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