Jesse Helms: “Not the Least Bit Racist”?

On July 4 Jesse Helms, former Republican Senator from North Carolina, joined the likes of former U.S. Presidents Jefferson, Adams, and Monroe when he died of natural causes(photo: ohnocriso). Following his death, the response from the MSM was rather telling in its defense—albeit a subtle one—of white supremacists and white racism. One might expect to see the responses from conservatives like Sean Hannity (who choked up when talking about Helms on air), or President Bush calling Helms “a kind, decent, and humble man,: and “a wavering champion of those struggling for liberty” (see here), or White House spokesman Scott Stanzel remarking that “America lost a great public servant and true patriot today.”

Even white Democrats spoke positively about Helms; Senator Joe Biden, getting attention from the MSM as a potential running mate for Obama, remarked that Helms was “one of the most thoughtful, considerate, and gracious senators I have ever served with.” Anti-racists cannot help but feel disgusted at the respect this man gets from former Senate colleagues, party members and supporters, and the general care taken by MSM outlets reporting his death and his ‘legacy.’ The only exception, at least mentioned in one of the MSM articles (CNN),was from Jesse Jackson:

He was a talented man. A man of considerable power. But he used his powers to maintain the order of the Old South. It was divisive…We offer condolences to his bereaved family, but the senator had a chance to move toward a more perfect union and he chose the Confederacy (emphasis added).

Unfortunately Jackson’s own legacy of progress and equality has been thoroughly smeared by the MSM, and he is simply written off as a lightening rod—even associated with a white racist like Helms. Despite the fact that CNN had a good blog appear on its site by Roland S. Martin, which criticizes the MSM for sanitizing Helms’ racist past, notice how CNN is careful not to associate too closely to Martin’s ‘opinion’ with a headline like “Give Helms credit where it’s due but don’t cover up his racism, columnist says (emphasis added).” Meanwhile, even among white liberals there is difficulty in speaking of Helms’ racism, such as Hitchens’ article in Slate, in which Hitchens calls Helms a “provincial redneck.” Hitchens gets it wrong in that he takes the perspective that racists possess the “authoritarian personality” and (thus) his (and everyone else’s) racism is a product of ignorance and/or stupidity.

So why is this happening?

What we are witnessing is the celebration of racist white men in our culture. This situation is particularly telling, given the current political situation and concerns about white racism derailing Obama’s hopes of victory in November, and the non-stop smear campaign waged against Barack and Michelle Obama by Hannity and Fox News. It’s important to note that Helms, despite a long history of profiting off of white racism for political power, wrote in his memoir that he was “not the least bit racist,” a response similar to David Duke’s denial that he was racist. After investigating his legislative record (his opposition to extending the Voting Rights Act, supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa, and filibustering the effort to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday), and past statements (e.g., saying once that the Civil Rights Movement was “infested by communists and moral degenerates”), how can anyone believe him? And furthermore, how can conservatives like Hannity and still-President Bush speak so glowingly of him? The sad fact about Helms is that white racism remains potent today, only now no longer requires the blatantly bigoted rhetoric that Helms had used.

We Americans should know just who Jesse Helms was: a Dixiecrat who came to fame when elected to the Senate riding the coattails of Nixon’s Southern Strategy (and later on the coattails of Reagan for reelection in 1984), for the anti-democratic and racist policies he supported (see here for some more examples), and his race-baiting tactics he used, including his “Hands ad” in 1990, to win more elections. We must question the “principles” Helms actually stood for, and that his attack on “liberalism” is a euphemism for “civil rights.” And yet the MSM gave him their blessing!


  1. Mordy

    Very excellent post. What continues to startle me is that nobody mentions the very obvious fact that the fine citizens of NC continued to vote for this despicable person. So while the MSM should deservedly take heat for the heaping praise cited in this post, folks in NC should really look inward and ask themselves how and why they continued to keep this man in power for so long.

  2. It is not surprising that the media did not give a full view of Helms’ life and career, the media usually does not criticize anyone after a recent death. It is even less surprising how Sean Hannity and Fox News portrayed Helms; they are playing to their audience. The truth is in death most people are not willing to criticize someone. However, this lack in any type of criticism or realistic view of his life and political views shows that race and racism is still largely ignored by most of America.

  3. JDF Author

    Thanks for the comments. I agree that we tend to speak positively about people who have just died, while in the Senate it’s commonplace for colleagues to accentuate the positive qualities of someone, regardless of their actual feelings towards the person. Looking at Helms’ list of posts and awards, including his multiple terms served in the Senate, it shows what a white man can accomplish by being such a rabid racist. What the media have largely done is a whitewashing of a slice of U.S. history, while downplaying his racism to a relic of the past and nothing more.

  4. Joe

    People like Coulter and other white conservatives are now trying to argue Helms really was not racist. How do they explain this: “The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that has thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic and commerce and interfere with other men’s rights.” Helms, in a television interview, 1963.

  5. JDF Author

    Or this one, from 1956: “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.” I would expect white cons like Coulter and Hannity to dismiss these comments as the product of “an earlier time” when “people didn’t know better” and claim that his other “qualities” outweigh his unabashed racism. Often in the echo chamber of con media like Fox News, they don’t even have to defend such comments. If someone brings them up, people like O’Reilly or Hannity just cut off their mics.

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