In 1989 two brothers, Lyle and Erik Menendez, murdered their parents. Their trial produced a wave of revulsion as the two revealed themselves to be narcissistic monsters. In the aftermath, when faced with truly unpalatable choices on a range of subjects, people would often frame their dilemma by asking: Who is your favorite Menendez brother?
Finding the most destructive racist in American history is a challenging assignment and, like choosing between Lyle and Erik Menendez, may be impossible.
But, the more you dig, the more Jesse Helms rises to the top of the list. And, it wasn’t just the fact that he was a walking, talking repository of hatred and bigotry. It was the legacy that he left behind.
Helms, who died in 2008, bridges phases in America’s often tortured racial past, the era of the racial radicals Tillman, Vardaman, and others profiled in this series, up to the transformation of the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln, into its present iteration, the White Peoples National Party. Without Jesse Helms, that transformation may not have occurred.
Helms father was the racist police chief of Monroe, North Carolina. The acorn didn’t fall far from the tree. Working for a right-wing candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1950, Helms created ads and flyers with messages like, “White People Wake Up Before It’s Too Late” The flyers asked questions like, “Do you want negroes working beside you, your wife and daughters….?” Like most racists, the dangers to white virginity were front and center in Helms’ long life.
Helms’ candidate, Willis Smith, won and went to Washington. And Jesse Helms was on his way. In the 1960s, as a radio talk show host and television commentator, he made a big name for himself in North Carolina, paving the way for the state to go from being the beacon of the progressive “New South” to the bastion of reaction that it is today. His core theme was always race. He relentlessly attacked the civil rights movement, refining and updating the themes that linked racial justice to communism and interracial sex.
While George Wallace would repent his actions, Helms never did. He never regretted saying, about the Selma march, that there was “evidence that the Negroes and whites participating in the march to Montgomery participated in sex orgies of the rawest sort.” And, inevitably, would you want your daughter to marry one?
But Jesse Helms biggest contributions to racial discord and social division were yet to come. Elected to the Senate on the slogan “Jesse Helms: He’s One of Us,” he began a Senate career driven largely by race hatred. That is, until race seemed – at least for a time – to be running out of electoral steam, and a new scapegoat was needed. Not wanting to be seen as one-trick ponies, Helms and his Christian right allies began their assault on gay people. But that is a story for another time.
When Helms died, such people as Sen. Mitch McConnell and Vice President Dick Cheney described him as one of the “kindest men,” someone who “always had a thoughtful word and a gentle smile.” In the manner used to buff up southern racists, people called Jesse Helms “courtly.”
Here are just a few of the “kindest” man’s “thoughtful words”: Civil rights workers were “communists and perverts.” He asked, “Are civil rights only for Negroes? White women in Washington who have been raped and mugged on the streets in broad daylight have experienced the most revolting sort of violation of their civil rights.” A Martin Luther King holiday would be an endorsement of the “official policy of communism.”
If we look at the American political universe in 2017, we can find Jesse Helms’ toxic fingerprints at other key intersections. He was an early master of dark financing of vicious campaigns, using political action committees to make poisonous attacks and character assassination the norm in our electoral system.
But his greatest negative contribution may have been in leading the Republican Party to its current state as a virtually all white party, a party driven largely by the notions of white grievance and victimization. The signal moment came in his Senate race of 1990 against a black Democrat, Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte. Trailing in the race, Helms ran a now-notorious ad. In it, a pair of white hands crumple up a job rejection letter. The voiceover says, “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” It worked. Helms won and held onto his seat.
There was a big strategic message for Republicans in Helms’ win. That message was that they could trade whatever number of black votes they might get for all of the white bigot votes they would get, and win most elections. It was a watershed moment, the next big phase in the Republican project that started with white backlash and the “southern strategy,” and then proceeded through various stages of “purification” up to the present: a virtually all-white party, increasingly dominated by groups and individuals who would have been written off as extremists just a few years ago.
Given the enormous damage that he did to our country and to vulnerable scapegoat groups, it is surprising that Jesse Helms hasn’t received the recognition that he deserves as a historic figure. Shame and embarrassment may still have a faint pulse. There is even something called The Jesse Helms Center, built on “Free Enterprise, Principled Leadership, and Traditional American Values.” Its web site explains that Helms was actually kind and courtly, and that all of the vicious, racist and homophobic things that he did and said were taken out of context.
Jesse Helms, one of the worst of the worst, a trailblazer of modern bigotry, definitely a man who would thrive in the current political environment.
Editor’s note on the use of terms. In this series, terms are used in a very specific manner.
“Racism”/”racist” is limited to examples of what has been defined as “scientific racism,” the belief that one race is inherently superior/inferior to others, and, the current use, a power relationship in which one group dominates another, as in “white supremacy.” Racism in this context is typically a system.
“Bigotry” is used to describe group or individual beliefs that stereotype or demean another group. In this sense, bigotry is not limited to the group(s) that wield power over others.
“Racialism” is a term that describes practices intended to pit groups against one another, even in the absence of the individual being a bigot or racist. Racialism is widespread in our political life. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran ads with a picture of a white worker (“fired”) and a black worker (“hired,”) while in 1980, Jimmy Carter implied that Reagan would re-enslave black people.
As the profiles in this series demonstrate, the boundaries between these terms are fluid, and the outcomes are invariably negative.