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Those who fought for progressive causes during the 40 years or so of Helms' public life have their own recollections of him.

Local leaders pull no punches about Jesse Helms' legacy 

History will not absolve him

At U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms' funeral Tuesday, approximately 1,000 people—friends, family, neighbors and public figures—gathered to honor the former congressman who died on the Fourth of July. In their summer dresses and dark suits, the mourners filled Hayes Barton Baptist Church, in the Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh, where Helms had worshipped for decades. His flag-draped coffin lay in state between large red, white and blue flower arrangements.

Outside, state highway patrol officers guarded the front door, and the presidential limousine that had carried Vice President Dick Cheney sat parked behind a police barricade. Many other political dignitaries were also on hand: sitting North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole; Cindy McCain, wife of the Republican presidential candidate; Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory; former Sen. Lauch Faircloth; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who gave a eulogy. Political strategists and former governors and state legislators were there, too, all people who benefited from Helms' influence in government and prowess in campaigning.

A pool of press photographers waited across the street with their tripods and stepladders, as no cameras were allowed inside the red-carpeted sanctuary, with its peaceful, cream-colored walls, except for those from the funeral home, which offered a live feed to television stations across the state.

"You can see the respect people have for this man," Tammy Bowers told her 12-year-old daughter as a crowd began to pour out of the church. She had brought her child all the way from Franklinton to stand on the corner of Glenwood Avenue and Whitaker Mill Road and view history. "I want her to know what kind of leader he was," she said, with sadness in her eyes. "There's nobody like him now."

Pastor Tom Bodkin praised Helms' "courageous stands," and given those stands—the senator's longtime opposition of civil rights, his hateful rhetoric against homosexuality and his support for dictatorial regimes in Latin America, just to name a few—one might have expected to see protesters beside the satellite news trucks. But gentility ruled the day. No one was there to speak ill of the dead. The glowing summation of Jesse Helms' legacy as a political leader, and a man, stood unquestioned.

Those who fought for progressive causes during the 40 years or so of Helms' public life have their own recollections of him. While some nod their heads in respect for his passing, they also mourn the impact of his political influence on the state, the nation and the world. We offer their voices, here, as a counterpoint and a remembrance.


click to enlarge Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth celebrate an Election Night victory in November 1996. - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG
  • Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth celebrate an Election Night victory in November 1996.

HODDING CARTER III, professor of leadership and public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill. Carter is a former newspaper reporter who was active in the civil rights movement in the South and later worked on the presidential campaigns of Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. He spoke about the notion that "you always knew where you stood" with Sen. Helms:

The quest for authenticity takes you right up a dead end. Authenticity is only as good as what it actually represents, and we as Southerners have had to spend several centuries trying to grow away from the instincts which Jesse Helms so authentically represented. At each step of the way, there were people like Helms saying: "No, no, no. Listen to the voice of oppression, to the voice of racial hatred, to the voice of bigotry, of fear. I say to you, that is your best instinct."

He's not unique. It's just that he came at a moment in time that was somewhat unique in this century, in that we had had a great social revolution, which finally won the Civil War for the right side. There were a lot of people very unhappy that the old ways had finally been put down, and Jesse talked directly to them. And as always in America, there was a deep nativist strain, this fear of the foreigner, and that one is always there to be scratched, not just in the South, but across the nation, and he did a great job of it.

I have no difficulties speaking without conditional phrases about Jesse because, as his supporters always said, you always knew where you stood with him. I think it's important that those who fought him in life do him the great favor of not backing off in letting him know where we stand, even though he is now dead.

He was an extraordinary success, and his success represents the failure of the American political system. His authentic positions represented the worst side of America's past.

He was a man without scruple when it came to assaulting others, and a man of extraordinary talent in knowing exactly how to evoke our worst instincts. He used with extraordinary skill the various perquisites of senatorial life to block the careers of decent and able people and the progress of legislation that was in the best interest of the great majority of American people. He was a great lover of Latin American dictators.

My regret is that he lived about 40 years too long, in terms of his political life.


JOHN PAUL WOMBLE, director of development for the Alliance of AIDS Services Carolina. (Helms' granddaughter, Katie Stuart, worked at the Alliance for AIDS Services for the past three years as the associate director of development. She just resigned and is moving to Washington, D.C., to work with another AIDS organization.)

I'm the first person standing in line for Sen. Helms' funeral. The one thing I would like to convey, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, is that we in the liberal community preach tolerance and forgiveness, and this is one of those times in life when we have a chance to live up to it.

If you had told me as an HIV-positive gay white man whose father also died of AIDS 20 years ago that I would ever be truly sorry to lose Sen. Helms, I would have called you a liar. But here I stand.

I spent my whole young adulthood thinking Sen. Helms was Satan incarnate. I've preached my whole life about forgiveness, and yet I never would have believed that I'd feel the way I feel right now.

Yet, when I heard that Sen. Helms died, I felt sorry for my friend who lost her grandfather. I sat with Mrs. Helms on the couch at the funeral home and talked to her about his life. I'm truly, truly sorry that Sen. Helms is dead and sorry that people that I love and care about are hurting.

This family has given me the gift of tolerance and acceptance, letting that anger and hatred go. I think that means there's hope that everyone can change, including me.

I would encourage everyone to live up to practicing that forgiveness—let's stop the preaching and start the living.


TOM LAMBETH, former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

I always take a certain comfort in a story I once read about Woodrow Wilson. When the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—the Helms of those days—had rather viciously attacked Wilson, one of Wilson's aides said to the president, "How can you just tolerate this? Why doesn't God strike him down?" Wilson said, "Always remember the truth is not a cripple; it can run on its own."

When I think about debates over political figures like Sen. Helms, I take comfort that in the long run, history tends to make the right judgments about people.

When the state had to make its choice about what direction it would go in the perspective of civil rights in the South, in the end, North Carolina did the right thing, and it did it in spite of Sen. Helms. When we were torn apart by a great confrontation over doing what was right, he would have led us in one direction, and to our credit and the good judgment of history, we went in the other direction.

While I think he and his family have every right to be proud of his superlatives—he was elected to the Senate five times, and that's quite an achievement—I'm glad that in those days, the good sense of North Carolina prevailed, and Sen. Helms did not.


BOB HALL, executive director of Democracy North Carolina. Hall has been involved in grassroots politics in North Carolina since 1970 and pioneered research into campaign finance.

I think Jesse Helms did very little for North Carolina considering the longevity of his service in the Senate. That longevity gave him a lot of power to be a ranking member of different committees, but I don't know that there's much to show for it in terms of helping the people of North Carolina. I think it was symbolic that when he was the chair of the agriculture committee and could have helped diversify the state's agricultural economy, instead he chose to be chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and became known worldwide as an embarrassment for his regressive, reactionary foreign policy.

He did have a big role in the rise of the new right. At the Institute for Southern Studies, we did research on his 1984 campaign against Jim Hunt, and it was kind of amazing how his contributors were a mix of the old right with the new social issue conservatives. Many of the donors were in their 70s and 80s, the anti-communist, John Birch Society people. In fact, donors who fought child labor laws in the 1930s were still around to bankroll his campaign. He was the symbolic leader who helped bring together the many strains of the new right, which gave legitimacy to fringe groups that grew bigger and bigger and got more money.

[Helms' fundraising organization] The National Congressional Club wasn't the pioneer of direct mail, but they did refine that and also develop the use of independent expenditure committees, outside groups connected to the candidate but not regulated in the same way—precursors of the 527s we have today. They were finding the loopholes in the law that would allow them to move large amounts of money to their advantage and do it quicker than their opponent. From their point of view, they were on the defensive—they felt the media was against them and they had to do this.

He did break all records of fundraising. The Helms-Hunt contest in 1984 involved over $25 million between the two sides. It was the biggest, most costly Senate race in history and remained so for many years.

A lot of people looked at the new right and said, "Wow, this values thing, the way they craft a message that resonates with Americans, it's about framing and values." But I remember being told by one of the Helms strategists that they believed in messages that are pre-rational, primordial, that connect with a person's gut. They didn't have to do with values; they had to do with emotion. The appeal was basically fear: They're coming after your children, your country, your home, your job—that white hands ad, the racism.

It goes beyond mere racism. He was a pioneer in nationalizing the appeal of fear-based politics, of xenophobia, of anything that could put fear in people's hearts and get people out of their chair to go vote for him or be turned off his opponent enough to stay home. You see it all over the place today, in the anti-immigration rhetoric.

It hasn't been healthy. Lots of money and energy is spent on refining dirty tricks, making them more poisonous and effective.


IAN PALMQUIST, director of Equality NC, a state political organization advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

I'm 31, and the thing I remember from growing up is when my family would travel out of state to visit relatives or go on vacation, when people heard we were from North Carolina, the first thing they knew about North Carolina was Jesse Helms. I remember that sense of shame that that was all people knew about this state that I really love and care about.

I remember seeing his opposition to providing care for people with AIDS and all the hateful things he said about gays and lesbians, particularly some of the openly gay people [President Bill] Clinton was appointing to the cabinet and other positions, and having the sense that North Carolina was not ready to welcome and accept people like me.

It was great to see the Mothers Against Jesse In Congress, moms, some of whom were otherwise fairly conservative, who were standing up against some of the anti-gay and racist rhetoric Sen. Helms was using.

He's responsible for building a conservative movement in North Carolina and nationally, and I think that has set back the cause of equal rights. Yet, in some ways, the gay and lesbian community also owes much of its political power today to the response to Sen. Helms.


click to enlarge Jesse Helms: "A lot of human beings have been born bums." Pictured here at the N.C. Republican convention in 2001. - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG
  • Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • Jesse Helms: "A lot of human beings have been born bums." Pictured here at the N.C. Republican convention in 2001.

JULIUS CHAMBERS, director of the Center for Civil Rights at UNC. A veteran civil rights attorney, he opened the first integrated law firm in the state and has been involved in landmark civil rights legislation.

I don't like to talk about people when they're dead, but I think he was a major obstacle to people getting along together and learning how to appreciate each other. And it was a disappointing experience I had with him over the years.

There were a couple of different candidates I supported for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. He just blocked those candidates, and the discussion was not about who would be able to look at the law and render decisions based on what was best for the country, but whether he would oppose the Civil Rights Act. My name was bandied about more than once to be a judge for the Fourth Circuit, but I was told that my senator wouldn't approve it. We talked about legislation that would bar discrimination, and it was the same thing. He was still opposing everything that was being proposed.

I can only wonder what life would have been like with more receptive legislation and more receptive judges. I think we really took a back seat and lost a lot during the period he was actively serving it the Senate. It was unfortunate. I think we could have broken out of that and made a lot more progress than we made.

I remember my father trying to become a member of the Montgomery County commission in the 1950s and how disappointed he was and how badly he felt with the way people treated him and his candidacy. I remember a couple of other experiences he had where he was sort of locked out because he was black and he didn't appreciate that, nor did we.

That was a problem with the United States during this period. We would always step back and let the bad actors control what the country was doing.

I know we've made a lot of progress from where we were when I first started. But those early experiences have created problems for us to deal with today, and it's going to take a while for us to get beyond that racial animosity. Without [Helms' influence], I think we would be much further along. We would consider [Barack] Obama and any other candidate without consideration of race, and we wouldn't be as apprehensive as we are now about whether we had a minority leading us. We would know that a minority could lead and make as much a contribution as anyone else. We have yet to get to that point.


HOWARD LEE, Chairman of the State Board of Education and member of the state utilities commission.

I had a very good relationship with Sen. Helms on a personal basis. Through the years, he always exhibited respect and cooperation with me, and any time I called on his office for assistance, they never failed to respond in a very timely manner. So I considered him to be an excellent constituent senator and excellent service politician for the state.

My problem with Sen. Helms was that, like many people, I disagreed with many of his stands on issues, particularly on civil rights. I of course vehemently disagreed with some of his stands on race. But I can tell you that my relationship with him was one where none of those attitudes manifested themselves in our interaction with each other. Thing I respected most about him was that I certainly never had to guess where he stood or where I stood with him. For that, I've always held him in very high regard.

I don't know what was in his heart, never did know. I recognize that he had to appeal to a constituency. When you look at Sen. Helms, it's conflicting that he had one persona exhibited for the public and another behavior pattern exhibited on a one-on-one basis. I concerned myself less with the external, because I felt I could always distance myself from that position.

I was around when he was first on the scene in 1972 and transformed the Republican Party in North Carolina—some people say he revised it, I think he built it. As a Democrat, I will always give him credit for that. His imprint on political history in North Carolina will be permanently endowed as a part of our legacy. I certainly think it will be memorable. I always have believed in a strong two-party system. For us, in the long run, I believe it will serve us well.


MANDY CARTER, longtime political organizer on LGBT issues.

I'm a little perturbed by just how positive everyone is being about Jesse Helms and his legacy. I saw on TV yesterday, they said, We're not going to remember the controversial Jesse Helms, and I thought, What other Jesse Helms are you going to talk about, then?

As a black lesbian, I remember that long before he came after us as the gay community, he had no love lost in terms of the African-American community during that whole civil rights era.

I've been thinking a lot about 1990 and all that transpired since. I was one of many people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who worked on Senate Vote 90. We were a registered PAC, nonaffiliated, which meant we couldn't work with the Harvey Gantt campaign, but we could support him.

At one point, we were thinking that even if we got every single gay and lesbian vote in North Carolina, there was no way we could defeat Helms. So we thought, who else would have a vested interest in not having Helms re-elected? Who were the other groups and interests? We looked at his voting record and realized, it's a long list. The arts, education, a woman's right to choose, people of color, the environment. That became a critical moment in galvanizing a progressive coalition that exists to this day in North Carolina.

We raised about a quarter of a million dollars, registered untold numbers of voters and said, There's no need for us to lay this thing down. We decided to roll it over into NC Pride PAC, which then became Equality NC. Mike Nelson was on the board of NC Pride PAC and that inspired him to run for Mayor of Carrboro.

Jesse Helms ended up ironically being the force that created a political movement and an understanding of electoral politics as another tool for change in North Carolina. It wouldn't have happened had it not been for our working to support Harvey as the first black person to run for a Senate seat from North Carolina. So in that sense, thank you, Jesse Helms. And I want to thank Harvey Gantt. I think of [Barack] Obama now, but the amazing energy and excitement that Obama has created this year, Harvey did in 1990. It was electrifying to see that race unfold.

Before I moved to Durham in 1982, I was living and organizing in San Francisco. I was hired by an organization called the War Resisters League. All my friends in San Francisco said, You're moving where? I said, I'm going to take a bottle of champagne with me and open that bottle when Jesse Helms is no longer the sitting senator of the state of North Carolina. I didn't know it was going to take 25 years! I jokingly said that I didn't know when I opened it if it was going to be vinegar, but when he announced his retirement, it popped and I drank it.

What can you say? He's an icon of the old South, one of the last. Even Strom Thurmond got it at some point, but Helms did not. I just think the man was so full of hate, his whole body was almost consumed with it. I respect his dignity as a human being, but gosh darn it, it's an invaluable lesson to learn.

I will leave with the quote of "Never forget, and never again." I don't think anyone could ever replace this man—he was one of a kind. Thank goodness. Helms ran five times and won five times, but in the long run, he has come and gone. We're still here as a movement and as a community, black folks and LGBT folks.

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