Scrubbing the Helms Legacy

5 07 2008

With the passing of Senator Jesse Helms inspiring scores of obituaries in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media, conservative reactionaries are pouring their scorn on critics of the former North Carolinian lawmaker’s bigoted opinions.

Right wing blogger Sister Toldjah, for example, explains in a recent post that Helms’ views throughout the course of his career have been “misconstrued” by the so-called ‘liberal mainstream media’ who are eager to advance a politically correct agenda.

In fact, Toldjah informs us that:

Even though he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he abided by the law and “got with the times” as they say. Claude Allen (who in the last couple of years got into trouble with the law), a black Republican who most recently worked in the Bush Administration from 2005 til 2006 as the “Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy,” worked as Jesse Helms’ campaign spokesman in the early 80s. Black civil rights leader James Meredith worked as a domestic advisor for Helms starting in 1989.

Its interesting how some people pay more attention to the exception than they do to the rule.

Even well after he “got with the times” Jesse Helms was not above explicitly associating immoral and criminal behavior with the mere presence of black folk, or, along with gay people, the spread of AIDS, or demonizing modern art for real or imagined sexual themes, or railing against the Martin Luther King holiday by denouncing the the famed civil rights leader as being a communist sympathizer.

Helms willingness to work with a few African Americans, or any other constituency he vehemently opposed, were mere reluctant concessions to changing political realities initiated by the very forces he has spent his entire life resisting.

In that same vein of thought, simply arguing that he was not a white supremacist is beside the point. Even if we concede he was not that racist simply does not excuse his eagerness to exploit and intensify popular prejudices for political gain. More to the point, using racist and other bigoted ideas as a tool to win elections, whether or not that one actually believes in them, helps legitimatize and perpetuate their very existence. In sum, Helms help pioneer the fine tuning of race baiting and general intolerance of the post-Jim Crow era into what is now known as the Southern Strategy.

As J. Gerald Hebert and Brian Dupre noted on Campaign Legal Center Blog, Helms, along with the North Carolina GOP, help spawn a voter suppression scheme called “caging” in a tight race against Harvey Gantt, a black opponent, in 1990.

According to Hebert and Dupre, the Helms campaign “sent out 44,000 postcards to black voters, giving them incorrect information about voting and threatening them with criminal prosecution.” GOP officials and lawyers with the Helms campaign armed with the same list of black voters went to certain polling stations in North Carolina to “challenge” votes in an effort to “cage” the black vote. His caging efforts help defeat Gantt, but they also earned scrutiny from the Department of Justice, which sought and won an injunction imposed against the Tar Heel state’s GOP voter suppression plan.

Helms success in 1990, however, also inspired other caging efforts, most notably, the George W. Bush campaign’s far more sophisticated scheme in Florida 10 years later, which was largely directed again at black voters, as Monica Godling describe in detail before Congress last year. Bush then ‘won’ Florida by a razor thin margin with assistance from the U.S. Supreme Court. Those same efforts were repeated in Ohio in 2004.

Those who eulogize Helms yet understate or ignore his contributions to polarizing our politics along racial lines, and fostering other false divisions, only seek to glorify the legacy of one of the great civil rights villains of the 20th century.

Dead or alive, Helms’ legacy will continue to haunt our politics for years to come.

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One response

6 07 2008
Mike Licht

The late senator deserves a fitting memorial. See http://notionscapital.wordpress.com/2008/07/05/jesse-helms/

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