Even so, I can't make myself like Helms.
In fact, when I think about him, I remember a bumper sticker my grandparents used to have for out of state trips that read, "I'm from North Carolina, but I don't support Jesse Helms." In many ways, it sums up my feelings.
I don't merely disagree with his policies, I feel ashamed that he represents my state.
Throughout his long political career, he has unabashedly opposed gays, protesters, welfare programs, atheism, "liberalism" and anything else that hasn't fit into his very limited, fundamentalist viewpoint.
Most disturbingly, he's proven an unwavering racist. In 1983, he initiated a filibuster against a bill making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. He's kept black judges off the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He's also consistently made comments clearly showing that he considers blacks inferior to whites.
In 1963, Helms said, "The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that has thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic and commerce and interfere with other men's rights."
Furthermore, Helms used racism to win his Senate campaigns against Jim Hunt and Harvey Gantt. Helms' race against Gantt included a television ad in which a pair of white hands balls up a rejection letter while a voice says, "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota."
In the 1950 senatorial primaries, he helped organize Willis Smith's vicious and racist campaign against Frank Porter Graham, criticizing Graham's opposition to segregation and playing upon the racial fears of the time.
For me, these examples transform Helms into a monster. Many recent editorials and news pieces characterizing Helms' career have cited such examples and drawn similar conclusions. The stories are true, and as far as I'm concerned, he deserves what's said of him. But, in terms of understanding North Carolinians and their history or even accurately assessing Helms, such analysis oversimplify his career and impede progress.
Casting Helms as a villain merely allows us to deny the prejudice in ourselves. We know that we aren't monsters and so don't worry about bigotry and narrow-mindedness prevailing. The more we concentrate on his horrors, the more we can see him as a relic from the age of segregation and open hostility to minority groups and distance him from ourselves.
But the people of North Carolina elected Helms. Voters watched his racist campaigns; they heard his television interviews; and they elected and re-elected him. Helms isn't leaving office because he was outvoted. He's retiring. More than being racist, Helms represents racism. Helms made galling, damaging decisions but only with the help of the North Carolinians who elected him.
If we stop calculating the ways in which he has erred and consider him as a human being capable of kindness, we don't condone his bigotry. Instead, we take his faults more seriously and force ourselves to consider aspects of intolerance in ourselves.
It's easy to distance ourselves from someone who suggests that AIDS victims deserve no mercy if the got the disease from "unnatural acts" or someone who whistles "Dixie" to a black senator on an elevator and says he's going to do it "until she cries." It's not so easy to separate ourselves from the type of man who adopts a disabled 9-year-old child.
All in all, I still don't like Helms, and I'm still really happy he's not running again. But, more than that, I don't like what he stands for, and I'm sorry we won't get a chance to vote him out of office.
Helms angers me most because he treats certain groups of people as if they aren't human. He's spent a career asserting these prejudices and making policies based on them. As residents of the state that gave him power, we need to help rectify his mistakes by granting others as much mercy as possible. We can start in the way we consider Jesse Helms.
Marian Crotty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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