But Jesse Helms, provincial and mean-spirited, continued to fight on. In 1983, he was the only Senator to vote against approving Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday. In 1990, he waged what many called the most racist political campaign since the civil rights years to fend off a challenge from Harvey Gantt, an African-American Democrat and former mayor of Charlotte. In 1993, he tried to taunt Illinois’ Carol Moseley-Braun, newly-elected as the nation’s first Black female senator, by singing “Dixie” as they rode the Senate elevator one day in order, as he said, to try to make her cry.
Moseley-Braun did not cry, but the act revealed something fundamental about Helms’ character that went hand-in-hand with a vicious bigotry that also targeted gays and lesbians, women and other people of color, including Hispanic Americans. A few weeks earlier, Moseley-Braun had led a successful charge against Helms’ trying to guide a renewal of a federal patent on the Confederate flag for the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She won the substantive political battle; his response was a juvenile gesture.
In 2001, when Helms announced he would retire from the Senate, the columnist David S. Broder, a widely-respected political centrist, wrote a column in the August 29 issue of the Washington Post that appeared under a headline that was simple and stunning: “Jesse Helms, White Racist.”
In the column, Broder declared “What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed White racist politician in this country … [and] the squeamishness of much of the press in characterizing Helms for what he is suggests an unwillingness to confront the reality of race in our national life.”
Broder continued that “What is unique about Helms—and from my viewpoint, unforgivable—is 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.”
Finally, after setting Helms in context of the modern-day segregationist politicians who fought the Civil Rights Movement, Broder concluded: “That is not a history to be sanitized.”
Ted Cruz tells us Jesse Helms is his political idol. What does that say about Ted Cruz?
(Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.)
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