Bye, Jesse, you left quite a legacy

Crossposted on Pam's House Blend

Jesse Helms has died. As a native and current resident of North Carolina, even today many people I run into outside of this state who know little about it -- recognize the name Jesse Helms. He leaves a long, dark trail of professional racial bigotry (he opposed the MLK national holiday, and civil rights legislation) and homophobia (that list is so long, you don't know where to begin).

Former U.S. Sen. Jesse A. Helms, the son of a Monroe police chief who rose to national prominence as one of the leading lions of the American right, died early this morning. He was 86.

During a political career that began with his election to the Raleigh City Council in the late 1950s and included 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Jesse Alexander Helms endeared himself to conservatives throughout the country.

Helms became known as "Senator No" for his constant battles against everything from increased government spending to civil rights legislation to communism to the National Endowment for the Arts.

I viewed the late Senator many a time when he was a commentator on WRAL. For me, as a young child of color, his blunt, unforgiving, unacceptable views were distressing and surreal to watch.

Here are some quaint quotes from the former U.S. Senator, collected by the Raleigh N&O, which also has a timeline of his career:

"Unless our Negro citizens submit more easily than we predict they will, North Carolina does not have the simple choice between segregated schools and integrated schools. Our only choice is between integrated public schools and free-choice private schools. … The decision will have been made by a very small minority of people who are hell-bent on forced integration.""

"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."
- Helms responding in 1956 to criticism that a fictional black character in his newspaper column was offensive.

"I shall always remember the shady streets, the quiet Sundays, the cotton wagons, the Fourth of July parades, the New Year's Eve firecrackers. I shall never forget the stream of school kids marching uptown to place flowers on the Courthouse Square monument on Confederate Memorial Day."
- Helms writing in 1956 on life in his hometown of Monroe, N.C.

Additional nuggets:

His infamous "Hands" ad, which he ran during his re-election bid in 1990 against Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, (who is black); Gantt led in the polls until this aired:


Jesse Helms' infamous thirty second commercial showing a pair of white hands crumpling a job rejection letter as a narrator says: "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. Your vote on this issue next Tuesday. For racial quotas, Harvey Gantt. Against racial quotas, Jesse Helms." "The New York Times and Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals themselves. Just about every person down there is a homosexual or lesbian." -- 1995 "The University of Negroes and Communists" -- Reference to the University of North Carolina devised by Mr. Helms when he worked for Willis Smith's 1950 U.S. Senate campaign. "Your tax dollars are being used to pay for grade-school classes that teach our children that CANNIBALISM, WIFE-SWAPPING and MURDER of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior." -- Fund raising mailer, 1996 "All Latins are volatile people. Hence, I was not surprised at the volatile reaction." -- After Mexicans protested his visit in 1986 "Homosexuals are weak, morally sick wretches." -- 1995 radio broadcast "She's a damn lesbian. I am not going to put a lesbian in a position like that. If you want to call me a bigot, fine." -- Explaining why he was opposing the appointment of a woman for a cabinet post. "They should ask their parents if it would be all right for their son or daughter to marry a Negro." -- In response to Duke University students holding a vigil after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, 1968 This bill attempts to make sure that President Clinton is not allowed to do by Executive Order what Congress has declined to enact in the past two congressional sessions namely, to treat homosexuals as a special class protected under various titles of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. -- introducing an anti-gay bill in January, 1999, quoted from Rhonda Smith, "Jesse Helms Introduces Anti-Gay Bill, " The Washington Blade, February 26, 1999 *** I will take this opportunity, as I've simply let the Helms record speak for itself, to say a positive comment about the late Senator - he and his office excelled at constituent services, with prompt, specific responses to every query regardless if whether you had his support on a particular issue. He showed up frequently to meet with and take care of his constituents, and he was rewarded by winning re-election time and again. Those acts do matter; sadly, that personal touch and responsiveness enabled him to continue fomenting bigotry in the name of the state of North Carolina that did not -- and certainly does not now -- reflect the beliefs of most residents of this state. My condolences go out to the Helms family for their loss. It should be noted that he campaigned openly for his granddaughter Jennifer Knox, who is now District Court Judge at State of North Carolina (in Wake County). Knox's sexual orientation came to light during that campaign.
In 1993, when then-President Bill Clinton sought confirmation for an openly homosexual assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Helms registered his disgust. "I'm not going to put a lesbian in a position like that," he said in a newspaper interview at the time. "If you want to call me a bigot, fine." Helms' granddaughter, Jennifer Knox, is a lesbian and currently elected to public office, a judge in North Carolina -- elected as a Republican.
He did not, however, apologize for any of his anti-gay positions. His one small acknowledgment (late, after how many perished of AIDS) came in the publication of his memoirs, "Here's Where I Stand":
It had been my feeling that AIDS was a disease largely spread by reckless and voluntary sexual and drug-abusing behavior, and that it would probably be confined to those in high risk populations. I was wrong."
Related: * Jesse Helms memoirs: race matters

Comments

getting to the heart of what Helms's death means

I'll add this comment, which I posted both at my pad and Pandagon in response to the glee I saw over Helms's passing:

Getting a cheap thrill from dancing on his grave for me isn't exactly what I personally need out of this event, though I understand why the sentiment is out there.

It would be nice to see a real analysis of the senator's statements and record. A useful exercise would be to confront the conservatives talking heads who are currently lionizing him. If the senator was a great elected official, what can they point to as a justification for his long history of anti-minority and anti-gay views through the lens of modern politics? Is that something to be lauded for?

Helms's death provides an opportunity, if the MSM chose to do so, to show how far this country (and of course NC) has come since his reign of legislative terror when it comes to race relations and gay rights.

Do today's conservatives disagree with Helms's views today? If so, what has changed culturally to put those views in the dustbin of history? If they do still cleave to those views, they should be prepared to own those views and defend them if asked for a statement about how great Helms was.

We've discussed all through the primary season how our country continues to have difficulty confronting race matters—Helms represented the worst aspects of white privilege, heterosupremacy, and is that in fact what the makes him a conservative icon to his fans?

Again, my question —is that something the GOP and all the conservative talking heads are willing to openly embrace when reminiscing about Helms? To avoid that discussion and dialogue would be a purposeful and egregious omission, a skirting of that opportunity to hold the current iteration of the GOP accountable for the evolution of its cultural conservatism.

The fact is that there have been so many missed opportunities to assess where we have been as a society and where we want to go—the passing of Helms can be seen as the end of a sick, sad era only if people are willing to confront what motivated the man, his supporters and his detractors in that time. Without doing so we cannot learn anything about ourselves and our future.

--
Pam Spaulding
Durham, NC USA

Pam's House Blend
www.pamshouseblend.com

--
Pam Spaulding
Durham, NC USA

Pam's House Blend
www.pamshouseblend.com

Thanks for this, Pam.

There's much to think through about this man's sad legacy.