Our long national nightmare of racism moved a few moments closer to daylight today, as Jesse Helms -- one of the more pernicious and persistent characters in that nightmare over the past six decades -- passed from the scene and on toward whatever reward awaits a man who made so many people so miserable for so long.
Pam Spaulding, a native North Carolinian who can hardly remember a time when Helms wasn't out there instigating that state's racists for his own political gain, offers her take here. She also quotes some of his most noxious public statements, including steamers like these:
Over at Group News Blog, my homie Lower Manhattanite -- whose parents fled North Carolina because of white men empowered by the likes of Helms -- starkly lays out what Helms did to black America:
"The New York Times and Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals themselves. Just about every person down there is a homosexual or lesbian."
"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
Helms' and his fellow travelers racist demagoguery drove more Black folk from North Carolina than GM, Ford and Chrysler vehicles combined. My mother, father and at least eight other uncles and aunts ran like runaway slaves from that intentionally racially backward-ized state during Helms' media heyday of 1960 to his Senate Tenure beginning in 1972 and at least a decade into it.Back in the early 90s, folk-music satirist Roy Zimmerman predicted that Helms would "die like a hero in the drizzling rain" when "the weight of his skull finally crushed his brain." It didn't happen quite that way -- or quite that soon. But, by the end of his life, Helms was nothing more than a living fossil, a political curiosity -- the last of an era of overt hatemongers that included Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Together, men like these anchored the far right end of the cultural tug-of-war that defined the entire postwar era.
He giddily meant the million or so African Americans in the state, and the twenty-nine million outside his state in the greater United States nothing but ill will and used his legislative cudgel to beat them down every single chance he got. There is no redeeming feature in my eyes to remember him with. Unlike several undeniably talented bigots who strode the last century like colossi—the likes of a Leni Rifenstahl or a D.W. Griffith—genuinely evil-enabling people who still boasted world and culture changing talents, Helms was not talented. Nor was he particularly smart. What he was, was dogged, and vicious—and he applied that doggedness and viciousness to the task of promoting White Supremacy for the better part of half a century. If he had a talent, it was in the application of his personal racial animus in writing and voting for oppressive legislation that denied people of color their so-called inalienable rights. He damn sure made managed to somehow make them “alienable”, so in that respect alone perhaps—in his blunt-trauma-to-the-skull harshness—he was a “talent”. But then again, Charlie Manson clearly evidenced a proficient “talent” for psychotic murder, so take that for what it's worth.
And they were never ashamed of it, either -- even though many more thoughtful Americans still feel tremendous shame for having shared this country with them. Their names are a stain that doesn't quite wash out, no matter how often we try to cleanse it with light and truth. Even so, we have no choice; we have to keep trying.
Pastor Dan told me that while Helms was, without a doubt, a dirty rat bastard, he believes in a God who is even capable forgiving rat bastards like Helms. Perhaps PD worships a better god than I do. But those of us left here on earth will be left dealing for generations to come with Helms' bitter legacy, and no amount of forgiving -- or media lionizing, which is already tuning up the hagiography machine -- should ever allow us to forget that.
We ought not speak ill of the dead. But we are obligated to speak the truth. And the truth is that Helms was one of the nastier characters of the last century -- and his passing is a Fourth-of-July gift from the gods of liberty that allows us to move into this one with considerably lighter baggage.