God proved today that he has a sick sense of humor. Jesse Helms, whose intolerance shamed the better angels of our nature and, sadly, reflected much of the American experience, died this July 4. This is the day we remember a document that famously says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . ." Helms, who served in the United States Senate representing North Carolina from 1972 until 2002, resisted virtually every political movement fighting to make that ringing declaration of equality apply to African Americans, women, and gays.
Watching TV coverage of his death today one would think that Helms was a lovable curmudgeon, tagged "Senator No" because of his principled resistance to federal spending programs. The stories showed clips of Helms' gay-bashing rants, such as the time he defended his opposition to providing economic assistance to families of AIDS casualties. ""It's their deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct that is responsible for the disease," he once declared. Helms loved to talk about his Christian faith and to deliver stern warnings to those who failed to measure up to his Olympian moral standards. In all his Bible-quoting, though, he never mentioned this passage from Matthew 7:1-5:
"Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? . . . Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother's eye."
Helms had a continent-sized beam in his eye. It was amazing to watch the broadcast eulogies. We heard about how late in his career he worked with Bono of U2 to increase funding for researched aimed at reducing mother-to-baby transmission of AIDS in Africa, though he repeatedly said that American victims of the disease got what they deserved. The Associated Press mentioned how he adopted a nine-year-old boy with cerebral palsy after Helms read a quote from the child in a newspaper saying that he wanted parents. A genuinely touching anecdote until you remember that Hitler spoiled his dogs. Former Kansas Senator and perennial presidential candidate Bob Dole declared that Helms would be remembered as a "considerate and compassionate person." Except for gays, of course. Then we got this nauseating quote from soon-to-be-ex-President Bush:
"Jesse Helms was a kind, decent, and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called 'the Miracle of America.' So it is fitting that this great patriot left us on the Fourth of July. He was once asked if he had any ambitions beyond the United States Senate. He replied: 'The only thing I am running for is the Kingdom of Heaven.' Today, Jesse Helms has finished the race, and we pray he finds comfort in the arms of the loving God he strove to serve throughout his life.'
Will Helms want to be in heaven if it is racially integrated? In the news stories I watched, CNN only mentioned one racial controversy in Helms' too-long political career: his 1984 re-election campaign against former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, during which he ran an ad where the audience saw a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter while the narrator grimly said, "You needed that job ... but they had to give it to a minority." CNN's political analyst Bill Schneider treated this as an exception and a two-minute segment on Fox News never referred to Helms' rancid racial demagoguery. Here are some quotes that should be remembered when we think of the late and not-so-great Jesse Helms.
Responding to a reader of his 1950s newspaper column in which he included a fictional black character meant to stand as an example of a "good nigra" as opposed to those civil rights agitators, Helms said, "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." The senator made another sophisticated sociological observation when his visit to Mexico in 1986 stirred large protests. "All Latins are volatile people," he said. "Hence, I was not surprised at the volatile reaction."
Then there was the time he referred to the University of North Carolina (UNC) as the "University of Negroes and Communists." What a classy guy. Speaking against civil rights demonstrators, he sternly warned, "The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that's thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men's rights." One wonders exactly what restraint Helms was referring to, given the murder, torture, church bombings, and crude terrorism committed by whites resisting integration.
When, in another act of white Southern "restraint" Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, Helms (who would later oppose making King's birthday a federal holiday), chose not to remember the greatness or bravery of the man but to evoke the sexual phobia that animated so much white violence against African Americans. Referring to students at Duke University who held a vigil to mourn King's passing, the considerate, compassionate Helms said, ""They should ask their parents if it would be all right for their son or daughter to marry a Negro."
One might be tempted to attribute this ugliness to the spirit of the times, as if every white Southerner in the 1950s and 1960s poured gasoline on the flames of Dixified racism. However, unlike segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who at least made insincere apologies for past white supremacist politics, Helms remained an unreconstructed and unrepentant Confederate. Unrehearsed moments give a wide-open window to the soul and this happened when Helms once appeared on the CNN program "Larry King Live." A caller sang Helms' praises for "everything you've done to help keep down the niggers." Helms seemed to enjoy the tribute as he saluted the camera and jovially said, "Well, thank you, I think."
It is curious that the media focused more on Helms' homophobic moments while lightly skipping over the repeated anti-black bigotry that benighted his public life. It reminds me of the criticism the great historian Dan Carter made in response to an otherwise great 1997 John Frankenheimer TV film, "George Wallace." Carter, author of "The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics,' took issue with the film's conclusion. Wallace (played dead-on by Gary Sinise) deeply repents of his role in Alabama's violent transition to desegregation. Towards the end of his life, Wallace reached out to black voters, but as Carter points out that is only because by the 1970s black people were allowed to vote. Wallace could not get elected without African American support. Wallace, Carter suggests, was motivated by selfish political ambition and not a Road-to-Damascus moment. Americans, however, love stories of redemption.
I think today's narrative on Helms reflects that same need for a happy ending. Virulent racists don't fit into American mythology. Today's obits painted Helms as a independent-minded, blunt man who redeemed himself by standing for a photo op with U2. Why did the stories refer more extensively to Helms' anti-gay politics? I suspect that homophobia has remained a more acceptable form of intolerance while racism can be accepted only if its on the down-low. Yet, we do disservice to July 4th as a time of historical reflection and a celebration of freedom if we ignore the power and influence that can be wielded by an out-of-the-closet hatemonger like Jesse Helms.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.