If we’re lucky, he took some of his bitter bigotry with him.
Jesse Helms, an unrepentant supporter of unnatural causes throughout his life, died of natural causes this morning at the age of 86.
The only sign of moderation ever shown by the longtime North Carolina senator was his decision to stop saying the word “nigger” when he was likely to be quoted in public settings.
The death of Helms is just about the best birthday present the United States could wish for on July 4. Free at last — of Jesse Helms.
While the networks and most of the press will soft-pedal his virulent racism and reckless disregard for the First Amendment in his hounding of artists, foreigners and many others, Helms stayed his divisive course until the bitter end — at least until the end of his public career.
After building a reputation as a frankly speaking bigot, Helms ended his public life as a liar who whitewashed those previously bold stands.
In a 2005 review of a Helms autobiography and a Strom Thurmond biography, Michael Lind noted in the Washington Post:
Like Thurmond, Jesse Helms, a fellow Republican who served as a senator from North Carolina from 1973 until 2003, symbolized the white Southern backlash against racial integration and social liberalism.
Helms gained a political following in the 1960s as a commentator on Raleigh’s WRAL-TV and the Tobacco Radio Network with his denunciations of the civil rights movement, liberalism and communism.
As a senator, he explained that he voted against Roberta Achtenberg, President Clinton’s nominee for a Housing and Urban Development position, “because she’s a damn lesbian.”
When Helms encountered protesters during a visit to Mexico in 1986, he remarked: “All Latins are volatile people. Hence, I was not surprised at the volatile reaction.”
In 1990, Helms stayed away in protest when Nelson Mandela addressed a joint session of Congress.
You would never know any of this from Helms’s bland new memoir, which passes in silence over the Dixiecrats in 1948 and the civil rights revolution.
Even though America has undergone many changes since the days when the word “nigger” was freely used, it’s vital for us to not ban the word. We need it, in context, to accurately record our history. Black man Randall Kennedy, author of the book Nigger, has argued that point recently in “A Note on the Word ‘Nigger’ “:
Jesse Helms was such a radical that he was able to fan the embers of prejudice even when he spewed the milder N-word with malice aforethought.
In “Dr. Jim Crow,” a 2003 article in the Journal of African American History about the post-World War II desegregation of Southern medical education in North Carolina, Karen Kruse Thomas noted:
During the 1950s and 1960s the [University of North Carolina’s] controversial role in desegregating Southern higher education would be subject to radically differing interpretations.
To white progressives, UNC was leading the way toward harmonious race relations, while white segregationists generally subscribed to Jesse Helms’s notion that UNC stood for “the University of Negroes and Communists.”
Many black North Carolinians were convinced that the university would never overcome its 160-year history of excluding members of their race.
The death of Helms, particularly on Independence Day, helps.
And it’s fitting that he should die during a presidential race that features young black man Barack Obama.
Whether or not Obama wins, the death of Helms and the ascendancy of people like Obama represent at least some sign of progress in America.