Jesse Helms Was a Conservative -- and a Racist

By Roland S. Martin

July 9, 2008 6 min read

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 www.RolandSMartin.com. To find out more about Roland S. Martin and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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