Jesse Helms: Assessing a mixed legacy

Unlike other white Southern politicians of his era, Jesse Helms never admitted or apologized for his racial bigotry, and this failure will always cast a shadow over his political legacy.

As a rule one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, said DeWayne Wickham in USA Today, but an exception must be made for Jesse Helms, who died last week at 86. For the three decades during which he represented North Carolina in the U.S. Senate, Helms “subtly carried the torch of white supremacy,” opposing school integration, the Civil Rights Act, and even the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. During his 1990 re-election campaign, Helms’ staffers sent letters to blacks threatening them with arrest if they showed up at the polls. Once, as he was about to board an elevator with Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman elected to the Senate, Helms told a colleague he was going to sing “Dixie”—the Confederate anthem—“until she cries.” It’s no insult to Helms’ memory to call him a “provincial redneck,” said Christopher Hitchens in For that was how he thought of himself. The racism of the Old South was a badge of honor to this “venomous hick.”

The “issue of race will always cast a shadow on Helms’ legacy,” said John Fund in The Wall Street Journal, but it would be wrong to dismiss him as a simple bigot. A “courtly, principled conservative,” Helms opposed affirmative action, school-busing programs, and other federal meddling in the staunch belief that states should be able to make their own laws. As it happens, the public has come around to many of Helms’ once-controversial positions, but liberals and the media have yet to adjust their villainous caricature of the man. I’m not convinced that Helms “was completely innocent on race,” said Jay Nordlinger in National Review Online, but neither he was he “especially guilty—particularly for a white Southerner born in 1921.” None of us can help where we come from, or entirely escape its influence.

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