Watching the funeral of Jesse Helms, one certainly gets a different impression of him. It is initially difficult to reconcile the portraits of him at his death with his national reputation. I watched the ENTIRE Helms funeral on WRAL.com. The good man described is hard to reconcile with the racial warrior, but that was often true in the old South. Good people had a horrible blind spot. And maybe it is still true that most of us have blind spots.
I now concede that Helms' 1972 campaign slogan, “One of Us,” was correct – he was one of us, even though it seemed he didn’t want to acknowledge that people who were DIFFERENT from him were also part of the fabric of what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community.”
I wrote on Ed Cone's blog: "The attitudes Jesse Helms expressed were very popular and commonplace in North Carolina. He was a man of his times, only more outspoken than many who felt the same way. Most of us have relatives who believed as Helms did. On a personal level, Helms and the people who supported him could be salt of the earth people. He was a hard worker, great at constituent service, and had a disarming, gracious, gentlemanly, self-effacing charm about him.
"But we cannot cover up or whitewash the dark side not only of Helms but of our own extended families and community histories. To pretend that there was no racism in Helms or in his political appeal is to perpetuate the blindness into the next generation." Read the whole discussion here.
On another blog, I simply could not let such statements as "Helms was not opposed to integration" pass without correction and documentation, quoting a few of Helms' many statements against integration over a 40-year period. Nor could I fail to respond to Helms-like rants in the same thread against affirmative action, "Martin Luther King was a man of violence," and "entitlements are aimed at those of a particular race."
My mother and uncle grew up in Monroe with Jesse Helms, and shared "small town values" with him. I've often wondered why they took such different stands on civil rights than Jesse did. My mother, Lillian Secrest Buie, was North Carolina English Teacher of the Year 1979 and an outspoken advocate of racial equality in Scotland County, NC. My uncle, Andrew McDowd Secrest, was a crusading newspaper editor in Cheraw, SC, and worked as a civil rights conciliator for the Justice Department, most notably in Selma, Ala in 1965., negotiating between Martin Luther King and the local police.
Not to be snobbish about it, but they had very different parents, and I think the differences were illustrative of the importance of education in shaping one's outlook on life. Jesse's parents never finished high school; he never finished college. That wasn't at all unusual for the time -- indeed, after the Great Depression, his family couldn't afford four years of college for him.
Jim Jenkins of The News and Observer wrote a touching column, "Remembering the Chief's Son," recalling Helms' days at Wake Forest from the perspective of Jenkins' father, a classmate. "The chief's son had four jobs at one point. No one knew when he slept. He left school without a diploma, not uncommon in those times, on the eve of World War II."
"The pundits will offer multitudinous views of his legacy, and many of them will be very critical of him, to be sure. But lots of other people will separate all that from what they knew of the man, even though some of their acquaintances won't get it."
Considering what Jesse came from, one has to give him his due. "I certainly wasn't chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and I didn't know the Dalai Lama," my uncle said.
My favorite story about Helms in his later years was related by my friend Bruce Johnson, recalling Helms' meeting with the Dalai Lama at Wingate University near Monroe. Someone there quipped that "maybe Jesse Helms has a Buddha soul after all," referring to concepts in the Buddhist religion of compassion and transcending personal conflict. That would have been a helluva evolution for "Senator No."
My sister observed that Jesse "mellowed towards the end of his life, but he didn't want to lose his image" as the Confederate General fighting for his principles and the romantic lost cause, until the very end, "so he kept up the bluster. Pretty typical of Southern men of that generation."
- Quotes from Jesse Helms
- Helms and Carol Mosely Braun
- Race was always an issue in Helms' campaigns (Charlotte Observer)
- Helms' Values Never Changed (News and Observer)
- Not My Favorite Senator, by Barry Saunders (News and Observer)
- Rob Schofield, Progressive Pulse Blog: "We'd be a lot better off as a country if more politicians emulated at least this part of Jesse Helms' life."
- No one is always wrong, and except for the truly evil, good things can be recalled about most everyone at the time of death. I found this op-ed about Helms, "The Jesse Helms You Should Remember," recalling his later years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to be illuminating, asserting that he had moved to the Republican mainstream on foreign policy.
- The singer Bono sent this message to the Jesse Helms Center: "Give (Helms' wife) Dot and the family my love and tell them there are 2 million people alive in Africa because Jesse Helms did the right thing.”
- Rev. William Barber, president of the NC NAACP, on the passing of Jesse Helms.
- Jim Jenkins' column, "Remembering the Chief's Son."