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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 542

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This is the grave of Jesse Helms.

Unfortunately born in Monroe, North Carolina in 1921, Helms didn’t fall far from the tree. His father was a racist sheriff who routinely beat and killed black people, including committing violence in front of a child named Robert Williams, who would later become the sort of anti-Helms, leading black resistance to racists. Helms would follow in the path of his racist father. He went to Wingate Junior College and then Wake Forest University, that Baptist haven of higher education unlike those long-hairs in Chapel Hill that ol’Jesse would spend a lifetime whipping up resentment towards. He went into journalism, became a sports reporter for a local paper in 1940, and was recruiter for the military in World War II.

Well, whatever, no one cares about Jesse Helms’ life as a sports reporter and recruiter. It’s how he became one of the singularly worst people in American political history that matters here. He was a Democrat like every white person in the South in the 1940s. But that Democratic Party was divided in states such as North Carolina between relative liberals who thought crazy things such as that Jim Crow should end and revanchist conservatives who were all about killing some black people to protect white women and the like. Helms was very much in the latter camp. In 1950, Frank Porter Graham had been appointed to fill a Senate seat and was running for his own term. Graham, president of the University of North Carolina until he took the Senate position, supported desegregating schools. Helms became the publicity director for his opponent, Willis Smith. Helms thus came up with such lovely campaign flyers that said “Wake Up White People!” about the threat of Graham, following by discussions of how Graham was a communist dupe and that he supported interracial sex. And Smith won the election based on this. Jesse Helms’ future was assured.

Smith brought Helms on board in Washington. He quit for awhile to work on Richard Russell’s presidential campaign but when that went belly up, came back to Smith. Russell became a mentor to Helms, which should never be forgotten when discussing the powerful senator from Georgia. Smith died in 1953. Helms then came back to Raleigh, headed the North Carolina Bankers Association and ran for city council in 1957. He won and “served” a few years on it if you can call the hatred for any change ever serving. It didn’t have enough power for Helms so he work for I. Beverly Lake’s unsuccessful and extremely racist 1960 campaign for governor.

After Lake lost, Helms became an executive at the Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Corporation. He started his legendary nightly commentaries, a years-long exercise in whipping up the worst kind of racial hatreds, revanchist conservatism, and redbaiting that define everything awful about this nation. Just as an example, during the March of Washington, Helms said, “The negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that’s thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men’s rights.” The near-call to racist violence that Helms specialized in would reinforce the long-standing beliefs among many whites that they could kill black people with impunity and many were killed in the 1960s as Helms railed against every advancement this nation made on civil rights. Of course, he also hated Medicare, the University of North Carolina, Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society, and everything else.

Was Helms happy to let his enormous pork-filled jowls swish to the left and to the right as he spat out his hate on local TV? No, of course not. He wanted to take his jowls to Washington, which he did in 1972. Now a Republican, since that was the White Man’s Party, very explicitly, Helms ran on a campaign against busing, school desegregation, McGovern, anti-war protestors, hippies, the University of North Carolina (always), and everything else that threatened his belief that the only people who mattered in this nation were violent racists. Nixon carried North Carolina by 40 points. Helms only won by 8. But he would remain in the World’s Worst Deliberative Body until 2003.

I could write for days about the horrors of Jesse Helms, senator. And I don’t have days. So here’s a few “highlights.” He took the lead on opposing a woman’s right to choose right after Roe. Helms was always as much as misogynist as a racist and he introduced constitutional amendments to ban abortion in all cases because he simply didn’t care about raped women or women who might die in childbirth. He was a huge supporter of Nixon in Watergate, which he said was a liberal frameup. Nixon and Helms chatted frequently after the president resigned, with Nixon giving advice. What a couple of great guys. Helms also went ballistic over Carter’s treaty to return the Canal Zone to Panama and threatened to hold up all the Senate’s business in order to prevent this huge defeat or something for America. This is just a very brief overview of Helms’ first term.

Democrats hoped to target Helms in 1978, but it was a bad year for Democrats and in a very expensive race, Helms won re-election by 9 points. He did not become a better person in the meantime. He continued introducing his anti-abortion constitutional amendment and demanded the Senate act to introduce school prayer nationally. He was a big proponent of returning to the gold standard, supported the government of Ian Smith in Rhodesia and the apartheid regime in South Africa. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he did all he could to stop the confirmation of Reagan foreign policy nominees he thought were way too liberal such as Al Haig, Caspar Weinberger, and Lawrence Eagleburger, as well as non-foreign policy people such as Don Regan. That’s right–these people were too far to the left for Jesse Helms. Helms also became a huge hater of food stamps and wanted families whose children qualified for free lunch at school to have their food stamps reduced. He railed against the renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, working with his close ally Strom Thurmond to call it discrimination against the South, though it seems that black southerners did not see it that way. Hmmm… Helms also led a 16-day filibuster in 1983 to prevent Martin Luther King Jr. Day from becoming a national holiday. Helms was personally close with the murderous right-wing leaders of El Salvador’s military regime and he served their interests on the Foreign Relations Committee. He also was a huge supporter of Augusto Pinochet. That was the second term.

Helms got a third term in 1984. He nearly lost this race. Always controversial, he could alienate people who vote for other Republicans. But after he won, nothing changed. He continued to be Pinochet’s biggest supporter in the Senate. He spuriously claimed that there were lots of POWs still in Vietnam that the U.S. government had left to rot. AIDS excited Helms because he thought all the gays would die now. He opposed any research into HIV, stating, here is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.” After Ryan White died, Helms refused to speak with the boy’s mother. He also led a campaign that convinced Reasonable Moderate George Bush to change his mind about allowing people with HIV to enter the United States.

In 1990, Helms faced the strongest challenge of his career, from Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt. This was when Helms used the infamous white hands ad, using open race-baiting about white people losing out to black people, including himself if Gantt won. This ad was produced by the odious Alex Castellanos, who never really suffered for that and was long a commenter on CNN. He also accused Gantt of being in cahoots with the gays who wanted to convert our good young children into their evil lifestyle. Of course this all worked and he won another term.

After that, he turned his jowly ire onto the National Endowment for the Arts after seeing Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs and got the Senate to vote to ban NEA funding for explicit material. When Carol Moseley Braun was elected to the Senate, Helms would walk around singing “Dixie” within earshot of her. After Moseley Braun led the successful fight to not extend the patent of the United Daughters of the Confederacy insignia, she ended up in the elevator with Helms and Orrin Hatch. Helms turned to Hatch and said, “Watch me make her cry. I’m going to make her cry. I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries.”

On the anniversary of JFK’s assassination in 1994, Helms said of Bill Clinton, “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard.” Helms became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1995. Of course Joe Biden later talked of what a great leader he was in attacking the UN. He tried to block the renewal of the Ryan White Care Act in 1995, because of course he did. He fought to make the Cuban people suffer more through extending the embargo through the Helms-Burton Act.

Helms and Gantt faced off again in 1996 and the vile jowly racist won again. He then personally killed Bill Weld’s nomination to be ambassador to Mexico as revenge for Weld being a liberal Republican. When the Senate voted to strip tax breaks from the tobacco industry in 1997, Helms was one of only three senators to vote against it. Another was Moscow Mitch. There is so much more to describe here, but this post is too long as is.

Helms retired in 2003, as his years of bile and hate took their told on his health. Or maybe he was just old, whatever. Anyway, he had heart disease, prostate cancer, and not enough other painful conditions. He developed dementia by 2006 and died in 2008. It is too bad he lived to be 86 years old. It is too bad he was born at all. Jesse Helms made everything around him, including our country, much, much, much worse. I hope he is burning in Hell and I am willing to suspend my atheism based on this hope.

Jesse Helms is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh, North Carolina. Whoever put flowers on his grave is also a horrible person. And that includes if it is his kids.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. This is pretty much peak grave and I thank you for allowing me to see it. If you would like this series to visit other American scumbags, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Strom Thurmond is in Edgefield, South Carolina and Theodore Bilbo is in Poplarville, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here.


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