Jesse Helms is at it again. When the longtime North Carolina senator died on July 4, 2008, eulogies couldn’t decide if he was a statesman who stood up for his beliefs or a pugnacious politician whose divisive principles changed little as the world moved on. Now that a conservative U.S. congresswoman from the state wants to honor Helms by stamping his name on a federal building, that legacy lives on.
It started late last month when Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) filed a resolution to name an historic federal building in Raleigh after Helms. H.R. 6607 would rename the Century Post Office the “Jesse Helms Federal Building and United States Courthouse.”
“This bill will ensure that the work he accomplished for the people of North Carolina will live on and invite future generations to learn about the important work he accomplished for our state,” Ellmers said.
It’s a sentiment that has more than a few dissenters, including the 3,600 and counting names on a petition to “urge Congress to reject this idea and to recognize that it is morally wrong to reward intolerance.” Helms “actively opposed civil rights, voting rights, disability rights, women’s rights and gay rights,” the petition says. “Some may say he was a product of his time, but the truth is that he remained a spokesperson for divisiveness and intolerance long after the times had changed around him.”
John Dodd, president of the Jesse Helms Center at Wingate University in North Carolina, remembered a man who “believed in American values like neighbors helping neighbors” in a Charlotte Observer column that says Helms “clearly deserves the simple honor of being the first Republican official in North Carolina to be remembered with the naming of a federal building.” Of course, that’s a reminder that the five-term senator switched party allegiances, as many southern Democrats did, after Democratic presidents championed civil rights legislation. Helms called the 1964 Civil Rights bill “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.” He suggested a wall around the University of North Carolina, which he called the “University of Negroes and Communists,” to protect the rest of the state from liberal infection.
Helms supporters may prefer him judged by a late-in-life partnership with rock star Bono over the AIDS fight rather than his 1990’s efforts to reduce federal money spent on AIDS because, he said in The New York Times, AIDS sufferers’ “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct” was responsible for their illness.
At the Wingate center, the distinguished lecture series has attracted former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice. But when Dodd quotes a warm personal letter Helms wrote to Coretta Scott King in April 1986, he fails to mention that earlier in the decade Helms fiercely denounced her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for what Helms called “action-oriented Marxism” when he opposed a federal holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader. Helms said King used “nonviolence as a provocative act to disturb the peace of the state and to trigger, in many cases, overreaction by authorities” and was promptly disavowed by fellow senators from Democrat Edward Kennedy to Republican Bob Dole.
As I wrote when Helms died, “unlike George Wallace and Strom Thurmond – who also rode the racial divide to political success and international prominence – Helms insisted his views never wavered.”
“Senator No” was a nickname the quarrelsome Helms wore with pride, and North Carolinians sent him back to the U.S. Senate again and again, as much to irk his detractors as anything. His races were close and epic, none more so than the 1990 Senate campaign against Charlotte’s first African American mayor, Harvey Gantt. Helms’ racially tinged “white hands” ad that accused Gantt of favoring quotas denying “qualified” whites work set a low bar for negative campaigning and remains the dubious accomplishment for which he is most nationally known.
While Helms won that battle, the race was being watched by Harvard Law student Barack Obama, who got the chance, as president, to thank Gantt for the fight and inspiration.
Helms’ increasingly diverse state remains in firm GOP state house control in 2012 and voted for Mitt Romney a month ago, but it swung to Obama in 2008, hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and was close enough in the presidential race to promise a future more purple Virginia than red South Carolina. One wonders what Helms would think of that.
When he died, I noted Helms’ “genteel courtliness in personal interactions” that “could turn into ridicule and retribution writ large. … He was a character who came to symbolize North Carolina, the good and the bad.”
The larger-than-life figure never seemed happier than when he was making somebody mad. And wherever he is – pick the place — he’s probably smiling.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3