By RUFUS G.W. SANDERS
I am not a racist!
These are the words and the message that the late Sen. Jesse Helms tried to convey in his 2005 biography. But the words were too little and came too late. They came after a long life of racist deeds and words purposely perpetrated against blacks who had been freed legislatively and redeemed constitutionally through the policies of reconstruction; only to feel the full weight and wrath of American apartheid at the hands of senators like Jesse Helms.
Helms was not the only one; there was the infamous South Carolinian, Ben Tillman, who had no fear of, or respect for, the Constitution as it attempted to correct the wrongs perpetrated on blacks since the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. He openly and without shame, even on the floor of the U.S. Senate spewed the most incendiary terms against blacks. Without impunity or fear or reciprocity, he used the “N” word. When he died in 1918, he had passed that hatred and venom on to new generations that included not only Jesse Helms, but Storm Thurmond, George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Bull Conner and even David Duke, to name a few.
Thurmond made changes and adjustments to his public philosophy before the died, but Helms always continued the ideology of Tillman, subtly but just as nefariously.
He once said, while working as a commentator for a North Carolina TV station, the university had become the school of Negroes and Communists. Interviewed during the Civil Rights marches of the ’60s; he said publicly that blacks could not count forever on the kind of hands-off approach by whites which allowed them to be free to “clog the streets, disrupt traffic and interfere with other men’s rights.”
And then there is that famous incident when he attempted to intimidate Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., by singing Dixie in the Senate elevator. This was after she blocked a bill he sponsored which would have allowed the displaying of a Confederate symbol by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. He would go on to block her appointment to be the ambassador to New Zealand. It was her status as the first black female senator which drove him insane with disdain for black accomplishment and achievement in a post-Reconstruction world.
This man, even as late as his 1990 re-election, threatened blacks with the same tactics used during Reconstruction. He promised they would be arrested if they showed up at the polls. The Justice Department actually had to get involved to stop such harassment.
This man, until the day he died, was a left-over remnant of the Confederacy. He was the new face of 20th century white supremacists, but without the mask.
Sen. Byrd of West Virginia, once a member of the KKK, had changed. Sen. Thurmond of South Carolina attempted to change as did Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
But Jesse Helms never changed! He had begin his political career in 1950 by helping to elect to the Senate a segregationist and he continued the policies of segregation, discrimination and race-baiting whenever it benefited his causes and political needs.
Helms never was able to fully come to terms with the post-Reconstruction era; nor was he able to live ideologically in a post-Civil Rights world, even after serving five terms in the Senate. He voted against almost every piece of civil rights legislation for 30 years. He was against the Voting Righgs Acts of 1964 and 1982; as well as the Martin Luther King holiday bill. He was a most polarizing figure and because he voted against almost all of the liberal legislation of the Clinton administration he earned the nickname of “Senator No.”
Because of his staunch conservative views he became an icon to conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s. He voted against affirmative action, abortion rights, gay rights, woman’s equality and anything center or left of center on the political spectrum. He fought his entire career against America’s involvement in the United Nations, voting to withhold funding to the UN every chance he got.
His racist imprimatur and his relationship and influence on Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott — not to say Lott don’t have his own racial issues — almost ended the Majority Leader’s career. It did help to force his resignation as majority leader.
One good thing — later in his career, really late — Helms, to the surprise of most, teamed up with Madeleine Albright and Bono to help fight AIDS in Africa.
President Bush called him “a kind, decent and humble man.” But he really was a hardened old man who spent his entire life defending a wrong culture who had lost the Civil War and which had long ceased to be. He had the opportunity to be instructmental in changing America for the good, but he chose to continue the kinds of racist behavior and policies that created this imperfect union in the first place. His funeral was attended by a handful of officials from Washington, but no words of high praise from conservatives or liberals were espoused during the service. Most, including Vice President Cheney, the official representative of the American people, remained respectfully silent. And those who did speak did so with a tone of reserved and tempered reverence.
Jesse Helms will always be remembered as one of the last segregationalists to serve in the U.S. Senate. He was considered a sympathizer at the very least and a vocal supporter at the very best of the racist policies of the old Confederacy. He left a legacy of racism. One would like to believe that he was the last racist left in Congress.