It’s in poor taste to make nasty comments about someone who just died. And I don’t welcome the death of anyone. But that doesn’t mean one has to invoke false accolades upon the passing of someone with a questionable history. David Broder’s column when Jesse Helms retired in 2001 put things in perspective.
What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country — a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired. A few editorials and columns came close to saying that. But 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.
My own paper, The Washington Post, carried three stories about Helms’s departure. In their 54 paragraphs, exactly two — the 10th paragraph of one story and the last paragraph of another — alluded to the subject of race.
Let me be clear. Helms has fought many battles in his career, and whether you agreed with him or not on small issues such as the funding of the arts or large ones such as Cuba, China, the Panama Canal and the United Nations, you had to respect his right as an elected and reelected senator to fight for his beliefs.
Uniike George Wallace, Broder pointed out at the time, Helms never recanted his racist beliefs or apologized for using race for political gain. In 1984, Helms’s toughest race against Jim Hunt, reporter Bill Peterson wrote:
“Helms campaign literature sounded a drumbeat of warnings about black voter-registration drives. . . . On election eve, he accused Hunt of being supported by ‘homosexuals, the labor union bosses and the crooks’ and said he feared a large ‘bloc vote.’ What did he mean? ‘The black vote,’ Helms said.” He won, 52 percent to 48 percent.
And then there was 1990.
In 1990, locked in a tight race with an African American Democrat, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, Helms aired a final-week TV ad that showed a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter, while an announcer said, “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” Once again, he pulled through.
That is not a history to be sanitized.
Al Sharpton’s statement on the passing of Jesse Helms has it right:
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“The death of Jesse Helms certainly requires of me to express my condolences and sympathy to his family. Certainly Senator Helm’s career represented a regressive and archaic politics to many of us but I hope he found his peace with God before he made his transition. The bad news is that he represented an old South that was unfair and unequal. The good news is that he lived to see the changing of the South which still has yet a long way to go but has come a long way from where it was and despite his resistance, has changed and continues to grow. Despite our difference of views and vision my prayers are with his family at this hour of sorrow.”
Reverend Al Sharpton, President of National Action Network
Copyright 2008 Liberaland