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Roland Martin
Roland S. Martin
8 Aug 2014
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Jesse Helms Was a Conservative -- and a Racist


Death has a way of sanitizing the most virulent and despicable aspects of prominent folks' lives, especially those who trafficked in racial bigotry.

In the past several years, notorious racists, such as Lester Maddox and Strom Thurmond, left this earth, and in efforts to show the humanity of both, tributes poured in, speaking to their Christian faith and unyielding conservative values.

Vice President Dick Cheney spoke warmly of Thurmond at his funeral, citing his run for president in 1948. But Cheney failed to mention that Thurmond ran as an ardent segregationist who would have been happy to see black folks remain in chains on Southern plantations, save for the black maid who had his illegitimate child — you know, the one who he never publicly acknowledged.

I recall former Sen. Zell Miller holding up a Bible belonging Lester Maddox and telling the world about his wonderful faith, never citing how he used that same Bible to deny African-Americans basic rights.

Oh, such good Christian men Maddox and Thurmond were.

Now they are joined in the conservative wing of heaven by former Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who died July 4. I'm sure a freedom-loving man such as Helms wouldn't have had it any other way: meeting his maker on the same day the United States celebrated its independence.

The tributes were endless and laudatory. USA Today hailed him for being a "conservative champion." Some stories mentioned his opposition to various issues of race, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Even the Rev. Billy Graham, often called "America's pastor," honored Helms in a 174-word statement. He ended the statement by saying that folks "honor his legendary life and extraordinary legacy."

But to recognize Helms properly, it's important to add to the list of words and phrases to describe the unapologetic conservative Republican: unabashedly racist.

It's very easy in this age to say that Helms, who carried his dislike of African-Americans like a badge of honor for 30 years around the U.S. Senate, was a son of the South who simply was honoring good, old-fashioned Southern values. But when you stand in opposition to a bill that would give African-Americans from border to border the constitutionally guaranteed right to cast a vote, then I refuse to call you a stand-up person for the rights of every man, woman and child.

And don't try to suggest that because Helms hired several African-Americans in his office that he was a good and decent guy who was misunderstood.

No, he was very clear in how he looked at issues, and if you had the wrong skin color, sorry, but you didn't fully count as an American.

As the tributes came in, I wondered whether anyone had the audacity to ask former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun what she thought of Helms.

Once when she was on an elevator and he saw her, Helms started to whistle "Dixie," a call-to-arms song for lovers of the Old South and clearly an offensive song to anyone black. He later said he did it hoping it would make her cry.

The two also didn't see eye to eye on the Confederate flag. She was an ardent opponent; he a devout lover. When she was appointed to be a U.S. ambassador by President Bill Clinton, it was no surprise who her chief blocker was. Good ol' Jesse.

Look at the effort to integrate the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by Clinton. Helms was steadfast in his refusal to allow an African-American to be appointed to the seat. He and others tried to claim it was because the court didn't need an additional judge and spending the money was wasteful. But it was evident that Helms didn't want an African-American sitting on what some called the most conservative federal appeals court in the nation.

And no one can forget the overt racism he displayed when running for re-election for the U.S. Senate against former Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Harvey Gantt in 1990 and 1996. Realizing he could lose, Helms agreed to an ad by Republican strategist Alex Castellanos that showed a white hand destroying a job application with an announcer saying that person needed the job but it was given to a minority. It worked with the bigots in North Carolina. That ad put Helms over the top and kept his Senate seat safe.

Did Jesse Helms have some good convictions? Sure. But an ideological conviction displayed in the political arena doesn't mean we are to overlook a history of denying black Americans their rights based on their race.

Give Helms credit for ushering in a new brand of conservatism in the country. But don't let that cover up his racism.

Roland S. Martin is an award-winning CNN contributor and the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith." Please visit his Web site at To find out more about Roland S. Martin and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



6 Comments | Post Comment
Just because someone dies, they don't achieve sainthood. It's obvious this man just got old. He did not evolve. The beliefs and opinions fostered and formed in his youth he carried into old age and was dogmatic to the extreme in his perverseness. That is not wisdom, it is ignorance. I always think of the story of "Scrooge" when these posturing "good ol' boys" leave the planet. If Marley came to call, dragging his chains and sorrows, they didn't answer and never received their happy Christmas morning. No, to those good ol boys, wisdom was an undigested dinner. The sadness is they died not realizing they never lived.
Comment: #1
Posted by: liz
Fri Jul 11, 2008 8:52 AM
Also never forget that the vast majority of overt racists have been and still are Democrats.
Comment: #2
Posted by: USMCMOE
Fri Jul 11, 2008 5:33 PM
The media's tributes to Jesse Helms were "endless and laudatory"? According to Brent Bozell's column of Wednesday, July 9, the news media were almost universally disparaging, derogatory, and frequently downright nasty in their coverage of Helms' death.

And as for that infamous campaign commercial, it sounds to me as if Helms was simply expressing his opposition to quota-based affirmative action; that is, he believed people should be hired based on merit and qualifications, rather than skin color. How is that a display of "overt racism," or designed to appeal to "bigots"?

I guess it all depends on your perspective.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Scot Penslar
Sat Jul 12, 2008 12:10 PM
Sen. Helms's death serves as an occasion for everyone to air his or her strong feelings about him, whether in tribute or criticism. Granted, it is only one of several issues raised, but I submit that the issue of so-called Affirmative Action is not a good yardstick to use for assessing the presence or absence of racism in a person. Honest, caring people can disagree on the merits of a policy requiring something other than merit-based access to schools, jobs, and promotions. ∂ I wonder whose death--it would have to be the death of someone widely held in high esteem--would merely serve as an occasion to remind us that no matter how good a man (or woman) is, his/her life is still filled with faults. Looking back at another controversial southern white politician, let's consider Pres. Johnson. I never was a fan of his, and I well recall in the history of his political career that he 'climbed the ladder' by playing on the racist attitudes of his constituents. But I also remember that he not only signed the landmark 1965 Civil Rights Act into law, but that he twisted arms to get it passed. He was quoted as saying " (that I'm President) I don't owe anybody." His meaning was that he was now free to be President of the whole people. So, what was he at his core? Racist or not? I confess I don't know. ∂ Reading Mr. Martin's column is disturbing, as it probably should be. I don't doubt he has his facts together about Senator Helms. Wishes won't change history, or the way a man lived his life. But reputable people have assessed Helms and come up with a more charitable result. Who's got it right? ∂ Having devoted a column to Sen. Helms, I wouldn't be surprised if he will also devote columns to other public figures, whose deaths will probably occur during his career. I wonder what he will have to say about Sen. Byrd, the former Klansman--was his 'conversion' real? I don't wish a premature death on anyone, but there is at least one blatant racist out there, who isn't white: how will Mr. Martin write about the elder Jesse Jackson? Why wait for his death? He's an active public figure. Mr. Martin could help us gauge his understanding of what is and isn't racist by running Mr. Jackson through the same mill he used on Sen. Helms.
Comment: #4
Posted by: davd w pennington
Mon Jul 14, 2008 12:32 PM
More of these kind of people need to die everyday! And it goes to show you that the Congress and the Senate will have them kind of people in a seat! Racism is here and here to stay! But most White Racist only mess with those who they think they can get away with it with! I would love for a White Racist to get in my face! That will be the last face he sees! They always stay within thier small racist town's! If you are about your cause bring it to the attention to the people you want it to affect! Us Black's, come to our hoods and see what happens to your ass!
Comment: #5
Posted by: IHateWhiteRacist
Mon Jul 14, 2008 1:10 PM
OK. Who can spot the racist rant among those who have posted? Does anyone need a clue?
Comment: #6
Posted by: davd w pennington
Mon Jul 14, 2008 3:53 PM
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