Monday, July 7, 2008

Jesse Helms: Lessons Learned

My pops voted for George Wallace. I remember the rage I felt back in 1976 when we debated his decision to support the symbol of bigotry during the desegregation period. “All politicians are liars,” he said. “I’d rather vote for one who tells me the truth than to support one who will lie in my face.”

That dinner table discussion has radically impacted the way I reflect on the political process. My father is a rare breed. He possesses the ability to look past the race of a man, and to find those good qualities that we all have locked deep inside. He was able to look past Wallace’s hatred toward African Americans, and supported him for one reason-he was honest.

My father wasn’t able to convince me to vote for Wallace, but he taught me an important lesson regarding how to measure the content of a person’s character. He taught me to admire those who say what they mean and mean what they say. He taught me to look past the cant of slick politicians to discern how they feel when reporters go home.

The words of my father helped me appreciate Jesse Helms. He stood for what he believed in, even when I despised him for taking those positions. When others demonized him, I saw beauty in the man. He fought against the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, funding for the arts and stirred hostility against gays and lesbians.

The dude stood against everything I believe in. He epitomized the Old South mindset that had me concerned when I moved from Missouri to North Carolina. I assumed North Carolinians must all be like Helms. They voted him into office, and I feared rearing my children in an environment hostile to African Americans.

I wanted a diverse community that celebrated the worth of different cultures, not a closed minded community trapped in the days of Dixie. I feared racial slurs and cross burnings. I soon discovered the beauty of living in a community that had struggled to redefine what it means to be community after such a hostile history.

It took extensive dialogue to move communities past many of its assumptions. I soon realized the emotions behind Southern symbols. I listened as old, proud Southerners talked about the Confederate flag. I watched them fight through the assumptions of their upbringing to embrace the worth of those of another race. This took hard work.

I’ve witnessed African Americans hindered by the memory of oppression. As white Southerners fight to overcome old assumptions, many African Americans are unreceptive to the efforts of those who are doing the best they can to embrace the new South. This is hard work that takes time and persistence, but it is work worth engaging.

It is what I love about the South. It is what I celebrate about Jesse Helms. Southerners don’t hide how they feel. They tell you what they think. I love that in your face approach. It is what drives my column writing and the work I do on this blog. Time isn’t wasted on sifting through well chosen words. I’d rather a person tell me how they feel than to waste time in an effort to uncover the truth.

It reminds me of a conversation I had at a local coffee house. An older gentleman was sitting at the counter next to me. “You know, I just don’t like Niggers,” he said. “I’m trying to do better, but I just don’t like them.”

His comments startled me. Not because he said it, but because he said it to me. In that moment I realized that he was working through his issue. He saw in me a person willing to discuss the matter. I was honored that he trusted me. His eyes weren’t filled with hostility toward me, but rather sadness rooted in his upbringing. He feared being too old to change. I could see it in his eyes.

“Come on old man,” I said. “You don’t hate all Niggers. Otherwise you wouldn’t be talking to me.”

He laughed. We talked. I walked away overwhelmed by it all. I refused to allow that word-Nigger-to hinder our conversation. Transformation came in that moment. His truth met my truth, and we were better served due to the conversation.

That’s the South of Jesse Helms. When people speak their truth honestly, change can emerge from the ashes of our past.

Rest in peace Jesse


  1. I admit that I was tempted to say good when I heard that Jesse Helms had passed and I am hopeful that the hatred and bigotry he stood for will pass with him. However, knowing that it will not and knowing that the only way we can rid ourselves of the racial divide is to recognize the humanity the in all of us my only comment regarding Jesse helms is that I will not miss him or his devisive politics.

  2. If every white person were like that old man, we'd get somewhere. But you know the trouble with white people--none of 'em are racist!

  3. You stated, when you were speaking with an old white man who said he "hate niggers", you replied, "I do not believe you hate all niggers or you would not be talking to me". Do you consider yourself a "nigger"?

    I would have had two questions for the old buzzard. (1) Define the term "nigger"; and (2) "Do you believe in Christ?" If he would have stated he believes a "nigger" is a "black person", the answer to question number two ("Do you believe in Christ?") would have been very interesting. For example, if the old man said he did NOT believe in Christ, then it would have explained why he "hated" certain people (who happened to be disproportionately poor and oppressed) - he was carrying out the will of Satan or the devil, because with Christ he would learn to love all people (and provide even special love, care, and concern for the poor and oppressed).

    If the old man would have said he DID believe in Christ, I would have said, he has a serious problem. Because based upon his definition of "nigger" - Christ is a "nigger". If he has "hatred for all niggers", this means he also has "hatred" for Christ. And your old buddy will have Hell to pay - regardless of his so-called "honesty".

    Likewise, Jesse Helms is burning in the hottest pits of hell unless he became "honest" enough to repent; "honest" enough to admit he was wrong; and "honest" enough to realize he needed the humbleness to seek God's mercy and forgiveness.

    Rev. Curtis E. Gatewood

  4. "Southerners don’t hide how they feel. They tell you what they think. I love that in your face approach."

    I've never heard Southerners described this way. In fact, Southerners have told me that's what they hate about Yankees!

  5. I'm way behind on my blog reading, but thank you for this, Carl. One of the oddest things about Helms' career, I think, was the friendship that developed between him and Paul Wellstone in their years together in the Senate. Think of it -- possibly the most liberal Senator and the most conservative Senator of the past 50 years becoming friends, despite almost always being adversaries. It basically boiled down to the fact that neither one of them minced words, and they both held their principles (however warped in Helms' case) and truly spat in the face of political expediency.

    Helms was a politician who infuriated me by representing me in the Senate in a way that I truly felt perpetuated evil. Were he to have run for office 100 times, I would bitterly oppose him each time. But when compared to those currently in power who do evil through a veil of lies and deceit, the memory of Helms is almost like a breath of fresh air.

    At the same time, his politics were unforgivable. The "white hands" ad still probably stands in the top 10 most hateful and deceptive ads ever run.

    May your politics die a fiery death, Senator, but may your soul rest in peace.

    Finally, Mrs. D., southerners will in fact tell you exactly what they think. They'll just say it in a really sweet way, and say "bless your heart" beforehand. What most southerners don't like about Yankees is how combative they can be at times. But this isn't the midwest, where all contrary thoughts are buried under congenial smiles and minimal words. You say what you think, but you're just friendly about it.

  6. I, for one, was almost relieved when Senator Helms died. I was horrified at all of the memorials on the news programs for a man who did so much wrong to African Americans in this country. I read an article about someone who refused to put the flag at half mast when ordered by the Governor, a man who lost his job because of taking a stand against this racist man. I would have done the same thing.

    I am not saying that Senator Helms deserves to burn in hell--indeed we all deserve that fate--but he certainly does not deserve all of the sugar-coating that has happened after his death. He was a man who did very, very racist and hateful things to a great number of people. That can't be forgotten.

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