In the Diaspora: Burying the past

The last "prominent unabashed white racist politician" in US dies.

By SAMUEL FREEDMAN
July 10, 2008 12:00
In the Diaspora: Burying the past

helms 88. (photo credit: )

On the day in January 1995 when the conservative movement took control of Congress for the first time in a half-century, the apogee of the Reagan Revolution and the demise of the New Deal coalition, Newt Gingrich delivered his first address as Speaker of the House. In the midst of pushing for his right-wing legislative agenda, the 10 items he called the Contract With America, Gingrich inserted an unexpected grace note to the party he had just vanquished. "The greatest leaders in fighting for an integrated America in the 20th century were in the Democratic Party," he said with palpable sincerity. "The fact is, it was the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that ended segregation." Then and there, 13 and a half years before the fact, Gingrich had pronounced the fitting eulogy for Jesse Helms, the extravagantly bigoted senator from North Carolina who died on July 4. Other than the unfortunate fact that Helms expired on Independence Day, his departure from this world, like his departure from the Senate in 2001, should be a cause for relief and candor rather than encomia and air-brushing. Although Newt Gingrich represented a Congressional district in Georgia, he was a transplant from Pennsylvania, part of the wave of migration that turned the Bible Belt into the Sun Belt. Geographically and generationally, his style of conservatism never made a devil's bargain with segregation. You don't have to admire anything about Gingrich or John McCain or President Bush to appreciate that all of them embody a conservative movement finally rid of its overt appeals to the hatred and fear of blacks. That tawdry past deserves to be buried with Jesse Helms, not elided by describing his ideology as merely "conservative" or extolling his services to constituents. The record tells a different story. As a television commentator in Raleigh, North Carolina (the launching pad for his political career), Helms routinely described Martin Luther King as an "agitator" and the civil rights movement as "so-called." He opined in 1964 that the campaign for racial equality was "no more than a political gambit leading to anarchy." Helms openly endorsed the concept of black genetic inferiority. "It is time to face honestly and sincerely the purely scientific statistical evidence of natural racial distinction in group intellect," he said during one of his television editorials. "There is no bigotry either implicit or intended in such a realistic confrontation with the facts of life." YES, HELMS was still a Democrat at this point in his career. And, yes, the Democratic Party had made its own cynical compact with Southern segregationists, trading reliable votes for timidity on civil rights. Even senators with liberal views on activist government and the Vietnam War - Lister Hill of Alabama, Sam Ervin of North Carolina, Richard Russell of Georgia, J. William Fulbright of Arkansas - toed the Jim Crow line on civil rights. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, he famously told his press secretary, "We have lost the South for a generation." The president erred only in underestimating the time span. Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, men who had shown no personal penchant for racism, all consciously courted the segregationist South through euphemisms about "law and order," "state's rights," and "welfare queens." Since 1964, only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Southerners themselves, have won any of the region's states for the Democrats. So when Helms switched to the Republican Party in 1970, he was going with the white-supremacist flow. One of his fellow travelers in changing parties was Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who had begun breaking with the Democrats as early as 1948, creating a "Dixiecrat" splinter group to protest even a tepid civil rights plank in the party platform. And one thing you can say about Jesse Helms: He never had a moral awakening like George Wallace, who late in life renounced his racist actions as Alabama governor and asked the forgiveness of the state's black citizens. No, Helms never even made the calculated decision to temper his bigotry to adapt to changing times. He was a true believer. In 1984, for instance, Helms filibustered against the establishment of a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King. In 1990, he defeated a black challenger for Senate, Harvey Gantt, with the help of a television ad only superficially about affirmative action. As the screen showed a white hand crumpling a letter, the voice-over explained, "You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota." NOT EVEN the genteel, collegial traditions of the Senate could muffle Helms. Riding in an elevator in 1993 with Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, the first black woman elected to the Senate, Helms broke into a rendition of "Dixie." As The Chicago Sun-Times later reported, he boasted, "I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing 'Dixie' until she cries." David Broder, the usually temperate political columnist for The Washington Post, got it right in 2001. Writing when Helms had decided not to seek re-election and had been rewarded with respectful articles on his career, Broder called him "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country." Helms, he went on, was "unique" and "unforgivable" in "his willingness to pick at the scab of the great wound of American history, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and to inflame racial resentment against African Americans." The superlative "unique" may not have been quite correct eight years ago, when Strom Thurmond was still alive and in the Senate, and still hiding the fact that he'd sired a daughter decades earlier with one of his family's black servants. But since Helms wound up outliving Thurmond, Broder's judgment ultimately was ratified. One should never assume that American racism has had a permanent stake put through its heart. There is a sound reason that Barack Obama got Secret Service protection earlier in the primary campaign than any other candidate. Latinos have become the politically expedient target for bigotry under the guise of opposing illegal immigration. But we can all take this much satisfaction. Whichever level of hell Jesse Helms now occupies, he can be enduring no worse torment than knowing an African-American is leading in the race to be president and the Republican opponent has been utterly unwilling to play the race card against him. www.samuelfreedman.com


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