Gone, but not forgotten. That’s how most North Carolinians are thinking of the late former Sen. Jesse Helms, a segregationist Democrat-turned-Republican who held his seat in the U.S. Senate for 30 years.
But where the mainstream media, conservative Republicans and fundamentalist Christians have been busy whitewashing his past and glorifying his memory, LGBT people around the Carolinas, the nation and the world will forever remember the real Jesse Helms.
North Carolinians first sent the hateful TV commentator to Washington, D.C., in 1972. “I might not agree with him, but at least I know where he stands,” was the rejoinder that echoed across the state every six years from voters who’d re-elect him five separate times, despite his racist, homophobic and AIDSphobic politics.
Helms’ July Fourth death brings a symbolic end to a dark era of bigotry and malice. Although his conservative cronies would like to lump his name in with the likes of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — who also died on July 4 — no amount of praise will wipe clean Helms’ record of pushing millions of racial and sexual minorities to the back of the bus during his reign as “Senator No.”
The early years
Born Oct. 18, 1921, to Jesse Helms, Sr. and Ethel Mae Helms in Monroe, N.C., there was hardly a thought that small-town country boy Jesse Alexander Helms, Jr. would eventually become one of the most influential and longest-serving senators in the history of the nation.
Helms attended Monroe Public Schools, after which he matriculated to Wingate Junior College and Wake Forest College in Wake Forest, N.C. In 1940, he would leave Wake Forest without completing his degree and begin his journalism career as a sports editor for The Raleigh Times, now known as The News & Observer.
In 1942, the second World War hit America by surprise. As Helms was leaving his work to serve in the U.S. Navy, he married Dorothy “Dot” Coble. His 1945 return to journalism set him on a career path toward international infamy.
Like most white North Carolinians of the time, Helms was a Democrat. Deeply embroiled in the national struggle over the continued segregation of whites and blacks, the Democratic Party split. Southern Democrats organized their own Dixiecrat Party under the leadership of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC). Successful Dixiecrats ran for office and won as staunch segregationists.
Thurmond, the only U.S. Senate candidate to win election through a write-in campaign, would have a weighty influence on Helms’ political ideology.
After serving five years as the city editor at The Raleigh Times, Helms became an unofficial aide and researcher in the 1950 Senate campaign of arch-conservative Democrat and segregationist Willis Smith. When the Dixiecrat-in-all-but-name won his primary against the more moderate Franklin Porter Graham, the election was a done deal. In those days, Democratic primaries were all that mattered.
During the campaign, Helms was instrumental in helping to frame a campaign ad that read, “White people, wake up before it’s too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races.”
When Smith took office, he brought young Helms, the ever-diligent, unpaid campaign worker, along with him. Under the tutelage of a hardline segregationist and racist, Helms got his first taste of D.C. politics.
In 1952, Helms put his know-how to work for another campaign — Georgia’s segregationist Sen. Richard Russell’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
If Russell had won, Helms might have been an early version of George W. Bush’s Karl Rove. Fortunately for America, Russell was shut out of the process by Northern Democrats who deplored his racism and considered it a liability outside of the South.
When Willis Smith died unexpectedly in 1953, Helms made his way back to Raleigh and was hired as the executive director of the N.C. Bankers Association. He also continued to spew his racist propaganda. In a column that ran in The News & Observer, Helms routinely chastised black North Carolinians and reduced them to Jim Crow-era stereotypes.
“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,” he wrote in 1956 in response to criticism that a fictional black character in his column was offensive.
“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,” he wrote on another occasion. “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.”
In 1960, Helms took a position working for the gubernatorial primary campaign of I. Beverley Lake, who ran as a segregationist against moderate Terry Sanford. Symbolic of the change in the Democratic Party, Lake lost his bid for the governor’s mansion. Lake’s defeat and his own increasingly out-of-step racist views set Helms on the path to his 1970 decision to exit the Democratic Party in favor of the GOP.
After Lake’s failed bid, Helms’ was hired as the executive vice president, vice chairman and assistant CEO of Capital Broadcasting. In this position, he was personally responsible for WRAL-TV’s evening editorial commentaries.
“I viewed the late Senator many a time when he was a commentator on WRAL,” recounted Durham, N.C., native and blogger Pam Spaulding the day of Helms’ death. “For me, as a young child of color, his blunt, unforgiving, unacceptable views were distressing and surreal to watch.”
During his time at WRAL, Helms started referring to The News & Observer as the “Nuisance and Disturber,” for its alleged promotion of liberal views. In 1963, he ominously spoke against the Civil Rights protests that were taking place, warning, “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.”
The same year he also claimed, “Crime rates and irresponsibility among Negroes are a fact of life which must be faced.” And, if he had gotten his way, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill would have been enclosed by a zoo-like wall. According to Helms, the rest of the state was in danger of being “infected” by the “University of Negroes and Communists.”
Despite the evidence of Helms’ own racist diatribes, on July 10 Jane Chastain, a columnist for the conservative, anti-gay WorldNetDaily.com, wrote, “Jesse Helms was astute, kind, witty and one of the most polite and fair-minded individuals I have ever known, nothing like the caricature often painted by the media.”
Chastain met Helms in 1967, when he hired her as a sportscaster — the first female to take on the job at WRAL.
“In those days, there were very few women in television outside of secretarial positions and very few minorities,” she wrote. “WRAL-TV had more than its share of both. When Jesse Helms was in the United States Senate, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up when I would read that he was a ‘racist’ and ‘against women.’”
White-washing the past doesn’t change anything for folks like Pam Spaulding, who had no idea that the mean-mouthed man on TV would be her senator for the rest of the century. Or that, once in this position, he’d attack and denigrate her for her skin color and sexual orientation without relent.
As noted, Helms became a Republican in 1970. (Sen. Strom Thurmond had switched to the GOP in 1964.) After 12 years of spewing his racist views on the airwaves at WRAL-TV, in ’72 Helms announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. He won the Republican Party primary by more than 60 percent and faced off against Democratic Rep. Nick Galifianakis of Durham in the general election.
Helms’ past as a race-baiting journalist and conservative campaign insider served him well. His campaign slogan — “Vote for Helms, He’s One of Us!” — was considered a direct attack on Galifianakis’ ethnicity. The Democratic Party’s stranglehold on North Carolina came crashing to an end when Helms won the election with 54 percent of the vote. He was the first Republican elected to the Senate from North Carolina since Reconstruction.
Once in the Senate, Helms wasted no time making a name for himself. His stature and influence grew when he hitched his wagon to a political horse that most had assumed was dead in the race.
Helms’ support of Ronald Reagan during the 1976 North Carolina GOP primary paved the way for the future president’s successes in the coming decade. After key primary loses in other states, Helms, with the support of Raleigh political insider Tom Ellis, handed Reagan a 53.4 percent victory over President Gerald Ford in North Carolina.
Reagan would go on to win primaries in Texas and California, forcing undeclared delegates at the national convention to choose the Republican nominee. Reagan lost his 1976 bid but the groundwork was laid for his 1980 presidential victory.
In the late ’70s, Helms founded the National Congressional Club, a political action committee formed to pay off his campaign debts. By 1981, when he became chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the PAC topped the list as the largest such entity in the nation.
Top of the heap, bottom of the barrel
There’s no doubt that the ’80s and early-to-mid ’90s saw Helms at his political and rhetorical height. Taking the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee put him in a position to defend tobacco and challenge expansion of the federal food stamp program.
In fact, as a longtime detractor of welfare as government-sanctioned “bumism,” Helms fought bitterly against expansion of most social aid programs.
He explained his opposition in 1965. “It’s all very well and good to talk about ‘uplifting society,’ but somewhere along the line we must face the fact that from the beginning of time a lot of human beings have been born bums, but most of them — until fairly recently — were kept from behaving like bums because work was necessary for all who wished to eat. The more we remove the penalties for being a bum, the more bumism is going to blossom.”
In 1982, Helms pushed the Senate to permanently ban federal funding for abortion and bar federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, from hearing challenges to organized school prayer. Although both proposals were defeated, Helms was lauded by Christian fundamentalists for his unwavering “moral conviction.”
Among moderate and liberal Americans, however, Helms’ was notorious for his radically conservative and racist views. And, as lesbians and gays became increasingly visible, Helms’ attacks on the LGBT community grew in equal measure.
“Jesse Helms was first elected to the U.S. Senate while I was living in San Francisco,” Mandy Carter, a Durham-based, nationally-respected LGBT activist, recalled to Q-Notes. “He had already made his reputation for being a staunch segregationist during the Civil Rights movement as a commentator for WRAL-TV. Once he became a sitting U.S. Senator, his reputation for being anti-gay became equally well-known. He was well-known in San Francisco with its large gay and lesbian community.”
With the the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early ’80s, Helms became fully engaged in the fight — against the victims, demonizing them for “bringing it on themselves.”
“We spend a great deal of time focusing on the needs of drug addicts and homosexual men,” Helms said on the Senate floor in 1989. “The AZT Program has money which could be better spent on others. Even the most innocent of AIDS patients, children infected by their parents, reap no benefit from this program. If the American people have to fund an AIDS treatment program, at least let the money go to those who have contracted this disease through no fault of their own.”
In 1990 when the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act came up for debate, Helms attempted — unsuccessfully — to block its passage. During debate he decried HIV/AIDS victims’ contraction of the disease as a result of their “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct” and said that there was “not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.”
As if having no sympathy for the unknown victims of HIV/AIDS wasn’t enough, Helms also showed no compassion for the stricken sons of his very own friends. In June 1995, Patsy Clarke, whose husband was a friend of Helms, wrote the senator a letter describing her gay son’s battle with HIV/AIDS.
“My reason for writing to you is not to plead for funds, although I’d like to ask your support for AIDS research; it is not to [ask you to] accept a lifestyle which is abhorrent to you; it is rather to ask you not to pass judgment on other human beings as ‘deserving what they get.’ No one deserves that. AIDS is not a disgrace, it is a TRAGEDY.”
Helms response was short and far less than sweet.
“I know that Mark’s death was devastating to you,” he replied two weeks later. “As for homosexuality, the Bible judges it, I do not. … As for Mark, I wish he had not played Russian roulette with his sexual activity.”
Helms’ cold reply was a call to action and in a matter of months mothers of HIV-infected and/or gay children were standing arm-in-arm to see him defeated.
Of course, this harsh incident was nothing new for the hard-hearted public servant. In 1983, he unsuccessfully attempted to block federal legislation making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday by accusing King of “action-oriented Marxism” and attacking his morality.
Ten years later, he stepped into a Senate elevator with black colleague Carol Moseley-Braun and began singing “Dixie.” Turning to friend and colleague Orin Hatch, Helms said, “I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ till she cries.”
Protesting Jesse Helms’ stances on HIV/AIDS, ACT-UP and TAG activists covered his Arlington, Va., house with a super-sized condom in 1991.
A condom and a boycott
In 1990, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) pushed a national, year-long boycott of Philip Morris’ Marlboro cigarettes and Miller beer, protesting the companies’ continued financial support of Helms’ campaigns. ACT-UP demanded that both companies sever ties with the senator and acknowledge their responsibility to the LGBT community and those with HIV/AIDS.
The following year, ACT-UP and an affiliate group known as TAG (Treatment Action Guerillas) set out to continue their protest of Helms and his bigoted, harmful remarks and actions on AIDS.
The small group of activists spent weeks preparing materials and researching photos and plans of Helms’ house in Arlington, Va. When the day came, the group spent only seven minutes climbing the two-story colonial, placing a super-sized canvas condom on top and inflating it. The front of the condom read, “A condom to stop unsafe politics — Helms is deadlier than a virus.”
“For years, Helms led initiatives in the Senate against people with HIV, and the community only responded verbally,” TAG activist Peter Staley told the American Foundation for AIDS Research sometime later. “It was time to bring our anger to his front door — literally. Did it work? Only he would know for sure, but he has been a lot quieter on AIDS ever since.”
The ‘softer side’ of Helms?
In his last years in office, and after more than a decade of nasty rhetoric and vicious funding battles, Helms began to speak up for HIV/AIDS awareness and funding, mostly for victims outside of America. Partnering with international superstars like Bono, “Senator No” took to the airwaves to raise awareness and even to raise money.
Some have tried to paint Helms’ stance as an honest turnaround. But many AIDS and LGBT activists don’t buy it. They contend that he only spoke up for international victims because they, for the most part, were not LGBT.
Lingering legacies, lingering pain
Activists disagree on whether Helms’ hateful legacy will continue to harm LGBT people. His political and religious views are still held by too many, but progress has been made.
“I think that our state might be further along in addressing LGBT equality if Jesse Helms hadn’t risen to power, but his day is past,” EqualityNC Executive Director Ian Palmquist told Q-Notes. “While there are still those that cling to his vision of a state where African-Americans, women and LGBT people are second-class citizens, attitudes are changing.”
That shift in cultural attitudes is clear. For the first time ever, in their 2008 short session the North Carolina General Assembly seriously considered a school safety bill inclusive of LGBT students. For four years in a row, Democrats in the legislature have kept the doors slammed shut on a same-sex marriage amendment. And in some executive departments under the direction of Gov. Michael Easley, it is now against policy to discriminate on the basis of an applicant’s or employee’s sexual orientation.
On the federal level, Congress inches closer and closer to passing nationwide employment non-discrimination and hate crimes legislation and two states recognize full marriage equality.
“Jesse Helms will be and should be the historical ‘reminder’ of just how bad it can be when an elected politician can legislate so badly,” Carter said. “I don’t know if there could ever be ‘another Jesse Helms.’ I think he was one of a kind. So, we can now add him to the list of the icons of the ‘old segregationist South’ that are no longer with us.
“I say never forget and never again,” she added.