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No honors for Jesse Helms

Late senator's record of bigotry is undeniable



So Tea Partiers got their butts handed to them, as American voters rejected the right wing's delusions, bluster and biases in an election the right had Foxed themselves into believing they'd win in a landslide. So what does Tea Party favorite U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers of Dunn do? She ignores reality, of course — an apparent requirement for the right these days — and introduces a bill to name a federal building in Raleigh for the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, the King Daddy of North Carolina racists, homophobes and dwellers of an imaginary Southern past.

A reliable poll from Public Policy Polling — which, contrary to conservatives' complaints, was the most accurate polling outfit of the 2012 election — shows that only 31 percent of North Carolinians support renaming the building for Helms. Even among white voters, the proposal is opposed 44 to 36 percent. Yes, times do change, and thank God for that.

A wealth of arguments can be made against naming the building for Helms, but nothing better captures the senator whom this paper once termed The Prince of Darkness better than the infamous "White Hands Ad."

In 1990, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt — an African American, in case you didn't know — ran a serious, tight race against Helms and had grabbed a slight lead in polls as the campaign waned. Helms decided it was time to play his career-long ace: race-baiting. A commercial showed a pair of white hands wadding up and tossing a job rejection letter as a narrator 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. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is ... you'll vote on this issue next Tuesday. For racial quotas, Harvey Gantt. Against racial quotas, Jesse Helms." Race-baiting did the trick, and Helms squeezed out a victory.

Helms had a lot of experience with that kind of campaigning. He cut his political teeth on the notorious 1950 Willis Smith U.S. Senate campaign, in which he wrote virulently racist ad copy and press releases. Helms and his colleagues accused Smith's opponent, Frank Porter Graham (former president of UNC Chapel Hill), of promoting "race mixing" and urged, "White people, wake up before it's too late!" lest they find themselves forced to work next to a black person one day. Smith won the election. Later as a commentator and proto-Limbaugh on Raleigh's WRAL-TV, Helms ranted and raved against blacks (i.e., the civil rights movement) who had the nerve to want to be as free as he was.

Helms' racism continued unabated into his career in the U.S. Senate, where he strongly opposed establishing a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., whom Helms called a communist and a "sex pervert." He also stubbornly opposed any attempts to end apartheid in South Africa, and he literally turned his back on Nelson Mandela during the latter's visit to Washington, D.C. Helms' bigotry didn't stop with the onset of a new century. He blocked the appointment of African-American judges in the national court district most populated by blacks; he stymied the appointment of any gays or lesbians to public office; and he continued to fight funding for the environment or the arts.

Yet Helms was voted back into the Senate time after time, shrewdly manipulating attention away from his tobacco-based financing by scapegoating artists and other "outsiders," ranging from African Americans to gays and lesbians, while proclaiming in passing that people who died of AIDS were disgusting and deserved what they got. Meanwhile, North Carolina received less per capita in federal funds than all but three other states. Some service.

A man seemingly enraged by the modern world, Helms spent much of his career careening around the Senate, hissing and stabbing at any sign of progress or cultural diversity, while coming down on the wrong side of important issues that affect North Carolinians such as the environment, education and women's rights. And we haven't even gotten to his unrepentant, cozy support for right-wing dictators and terrorists (er, "freedom fighters") in Central America.

It is astonishing, even mystifying, to hear Helms' sincere defenders talk about him. They focus on his deserved reputation for great constituent service and his "gracious" manners and "Southern gentleman" behavior. It's as if some inner mechanism forbids his defenders to acknowledge Helms' publicly hateful, destructive side. John Dodd, head of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, wrote in the Observer the other day that Helms had "served with distinction" and "deserves this honor." No he didn't, Mr. Dodd; relentlessly attacking minorities, whether racial or sexual, is not serving with distinction. And no, a man so divisive and hurtful does not deserve any honors, much less have a federal building named for him.

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