Jesse Helms: The Personification of Ignorance
26 August 2001
Jesse Helms, the personification of ignorance, has announced his retirement. According to the political pundits, Helms's retirement is one small step for man and one giant leap for North Carolina. This event is hardly the equivalent of walking on the moon. The ignorance Helms represents--including racism, homophobia, and a twisted nationalism that supports right-wing foreign dictatorships--will not be extinguished with the retirement of one man. That ignorance can only be swept away by more pervasive change in North Carolina and in our country.
Like all of us, Helms is a product of his environment and genetics. He reinforced his belief system by immersing himself with like-minded individuals and by joining or attending institutions with a narrow worldview. Born in Monroe, North Carolina in 1921 he attended public schools, a local junior college and a college in Winston-Salem. Unlike most United States senators, he is not a lawyer. He does hold an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Bob Jones University, a school notorious for its reactionary politics.
Helms's career combined banking, media, and politics. He served as Executive Director of the North Carolina Bankers Association and started in the media as an editor of a Raleigh newspaper before switching to radio as Director of News and Programs for the Tobacco Radio Network. He was active in local politics and served on the Raleigh City Council. He was an assistant to two United States Senators, both Democrats. The year the Republicans first nominated Dwight Eisenhower for president, Helms acted as a media consultant for Georgia Democratic Senator Richard Russell's presidential campaign. For over a decade leading up to his run for the Senate, Helms wrote and read editorials for over 200 newspapers and 70 radio stations. Despite the opportunities to open his mind, Helms kept his shut.
Helms is not an aberration. His thinking reflects the constituents who voted for him. They know him and admire him. He holds leadership positions in his Baptist church, in the Rotary Club, in the Masons, and in local charitable organizations. These groups are not ashamed of Jesse Helms.
Senator Helms began his first term in the Senate in January 1973, one year before my brother Kevin left Massachusetts for a teaching position in Raleigh. It did not take long for my brother to be struck by open resentment of "Yankees" and a culture that condoned open discrimination. Segregated Christian academies refused to play against the integrated teams he coached. On a call home he told me about passing a sign praising North Carolina as the home of the Ku Klux Klan.
My brother lasted only one short year in North Carolina. The stories noted above were only a part of his experience. Change was already challenging the status quo. Over the years immigration to local universities and the Research Triangle area from other states brought diversity and economic growth to this area of North Carolina. Helms attacked the diversity in communities such as Chapel Hill, referring to it as a "zoo" that should be fenced in for the entertainment of the morally and ethnic pure.
Twenty-five years after my brother returned to Massachusetts, I was in Helms's hometown of Monroe. I was meeting with a businessman, at least ten years my junior, who was fond of calling me "young fella." Although we shared virtually nothing in common, outside of the opportunity to do business together, I liked Butch. I can't say that about the man to whom he would introduced me to on this trip. Climbing into the backseat of the man's pick-up truck, I was admonished that I should get into the front so as not to sit on the shotgun. The shotgun, I was later told, came in handy for keeping the "niggers" in line. He told me that he often lent it to the North Carolina State Police for that purpose. Before the shock of the shotgun conversation wore off, we drove by a young black man and a young white woman holding hands. The man responded with an ugly comment. To my further shock, Butch chimed in that "people should stay with their own kind." The Butch I had come to know had a good heart, but it was clear that he believed in segregation with the same faith he believed in God. It was what he was taught.
Many of us from the North like to believe that we are intellectually and morally superior to Southerners. Leaders like Helms and chance meetings with the likes of the man from Monroe help reinforce that belief. Despite appearances, we need to take a closer look at ourselves. My brother returned to Massachusetts to teach at a private inner-city school with a predominately black student body. In response to the de facto segregation in Boston, Federal Judge Arthur Garrity put control of the public schools into receivership and ordered integration. Garrity's order resulted in busing of students and promises of defiance from leaders like Louise Day Hicks, Boston's answer to Bull Conner and George Wallace. Boston's schools were rocked by violence. White liberals blasted the open racism but kept their children safe in suburban schools. Whites fled to the suburbs in droves or sent their kids to parochial schools in the suburbs that lacked the racial and cultural diversity imposed by Garrity.
Boston has come a long way since the 1970s. The dam of ignorance is being beaten back by the tide of diversity. That diversity has come about from individuals trying to improve their lives and the lives of their families. Boston is a dynamic city that is flourishing with infusions of investment capital and federal funds. The city's colleges, universities, and businesses welcome people from around the country and around the world. Boston embraces diversity today in a way that was unheard of twenty-five years ago.
No one man changed Boston over night, not even Judge Arthur Garrity. The retirement of Jesse Helms in North Carolina is a good thing. A North Carolina awash in diversity will be a greater catalyst for change.
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