Fictional vs. Factual: The Truth Behind the Rumors about Jesse Helms

Senator Jesse Helms was nothing short of a political giant and is still relevant in today’s political theatre. A 2014 New and Observer article states, “Helms helped move the Republican Party to his way of thinking. His brand of hard-shelled, confrontational conservatism was very provocative for his day.” In office from Watergate to the 9/11 attacks, Senator Helms helped place North Carolina on the 20th Century political landscape.

Although Senator Helms was a polarizing figure, he would at times, compromise his policies but never compromise his principles. “Senator No” quickly gained a reputation for having strong, faith-based conservative beliefs which remained consistent throughout his 30 years in office. As with most people in powerful positions, especially those in politics, Helms was constantly in the media spotlight and his words were carefully scrutinized. In some cases rumors of what he said turned into news reports, which then turned into what many believed to be “fact.”

Below are examples of “fictional facts” you may have heard about Senator Helms. Through research in primary sources and using firsthand accounts of the topics and events, we can examine the truth behind the rumors; separating fact from fiction.

Fictional Fact #1:

Jesse Helms was on Willis Smith’s staff during the infamous Willis Smith/Franklin Porter Graham 1950 Senate race and helped produce inflammatory campaign flyers.

Actual Fact:

While working as a radio news broadcaster for WRAL radio, Jesse Helms publically supported Willis Smith during the 1950 Senate race. However, Helms was never employed by the Smith campaign or was part of its operations. Neither Jesse Helms nor the Smith for Senate campaign ever had a part in producing the inflammatory materials that were circulated during that time. Unregulated and unmonitored small groups, such as the Know the Truth Committee, and individuals who strongly opposed Senator Graham’s campaign produced such materials. According to Hoover Adams, Smith’s publicity director, Smith made it abundantly clear that he drop out of the Senate race if any of his staff were ever involved in that sort of campaign.

In fact, Helms had a good relationship with Senator Graham and Governor Kerr Scott, a supporter of Graham. Prior to the 1950 Senate primary, Governor Scott and Graham asked Helms to serve as the Graham campaign publicity director. Helms politely declined because he did not agree with Graham’s political philosophy.

Sources:

Interview with Hoover Adams, member of the Smith for Senate staff.

Jonathan Gentry, “All That’s Not Fit to Print: Anti-Communist and White Supremacist Campaign Literature in the 1950 North Carolina Democratic Senate Primary,” North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 82, No. 1, January 2005.

Tom Eamon, The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory, (Chapel Hill, 2014), p. 28.

Fictional Fact #2:

Jesse Helms called the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a “University of Negroes and Communists.”

Actual Fact:

It is unproven that Jesse Helms actually said that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was a “University of Negroes and Communists.” Thorough research indicates this quote was first attributed to Helms in the mid-1990s by two newspapers (the Capital Times in 1994 and The Charleston Gazette in 1995), without time, place or context mentioned. The media did not bother doing their homework and continued repeating this line as though it was fact. In 2012, the Charlotte Observer printed a retraction after quoting Helms’ supposed line and WRAL removed the false claim from its obituary on Helms.

Most people claim the quote came from one of Helms’ Viewpoint editorials when he worked for WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC. However, there is no record of this statement in any of the Viewpoint transcripts in the North Carolina Collection at the UNC-Chapel Hill Wilson Library or in the Helms Center Archives. Furthermore, the two biographers of Helms (neither of which was friendly) did not include this quote in their books.

Fictional Fact #3:

Senator Helms physically threatened President Bill Clinton.

Actual Fact

During a 1994 interview, Senator Helms was discussing how he believed President Clinton, for various reasons, was unpopular on North Carolina’s military bases and said, “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard.” The press and several opponents in the Senate, immediately accused Helms of actually threatening President Clinton’s well-being. Senator Helms never intended for his statement to be taken literally and never condoned violence under any circumstances.

The following day Helms issued a statement:

I made a mistake last evening which I shall not repeat. In an informal telephone interview with a local reporter I made an offhand remark…Of course I didn’t expect to be taken literally when, to emphasize the cost and concerns I am hearing, I far too casually suggested that the President might need a bodyguard, or words to that effect.

As you can see, Senator Helms made an off the cuff remark that was taken out of context and reprinted to look like Helms threatened the President. Helms immediately apologized and recognized that he should have chosen his words more carefully, but never seriously threatened the use of force against President Clinton.

Sources: Steven Greenhouse, “Helms Takes New Swipe at Clinton, Then Calls it  Mistake.” New York Times, November 23, 1994, accessed August 12, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/23/us/helms-takes-new-swipe-at-clinton-then-calls-it-mistake.html.

Fictional Fact #4:

Senator Helms sang “Dixie” in an elevator to Senator Carol Moseley Braun hoping it would make her cry.

Actual Fact:

This story is fully taken out of context and careful examination of the facts reveals an entirely different interaction between Senator Moseley Braun and Senator Helms.

In July 1993, Moseley Braun and Helms clashed over an amendment to extend the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s (UDC) design patent on the organization’s insignia, the Confederate Flag. Congress had renewed the patent every fourteen years since 1898, but after some debate the Senate voted not to renew the UDC patent.

A few days after the UDC patent vote, on August 3, 1993, Helms found himself riding an elevator with Senator Moseley Braun (Orrin Hatch was also present). Helms began singing the words to “Dixie,” a popular southern song written in 1850, and said, “I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries.” Moseley Braun replied, “Senator Helms, your singing would make me cry if you sang ‘Rock of Ages.’” They both laughed and that was the end of the “incident.” Initially, according to both Helms and Moseley Braun, the exchange was friendly and lighthearted.

Moseley Braun later shared the story at a 1993 National Urban League annual dinner and it was quickly picked up by the press and used to make Helms look like a racist, insensitive bully. Most newspapers and news stations only quoted Helms saying, “I’m going to make her cry” and left out the entire exchange. However, the actual account shows that both Moseley Braun and Helms were clearly joking and there was no ill intent.

In his memoir Here’s Where I Stand, Helms recounts his version of what happened after the vote reversal:

During a break following that vote, Braun and I found ourselves in the same elevator car, along with Senator Orrin Hatch and some other folks. Noting Braun’s success on the floor, I jokingly told her I was going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cried. Entering into a good-natured banter, she slapped me on the back and told me to hush. She said my singing was so bad that she would cry no matter what I tried to sing. We all laughed, and that should have been the end of the story.

In fact, during a 1999 oral history interview, Senator Moseley Braun barely mentioned the encounter with Helms on the elevator. She said, “I think Jesse Helms was deliberately being antagonistic, in a southern kind of way, when he got on the elevator. The action on the floor I think he was pretty much sticking to the idea that these are nice little old ladies who have a different point of view.” Moseley Braun mentioned nothing of racism or that she thought Helms was being a bully and actually wanted to make her cry.

Sources:

William A. Link, Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism (New York, 2008), p. 405-408.

Oral History interview, Carol Moseley Braun, Interview #1, January 27, 1999, http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/OralHistory_MoseleyBraunCarol.pdf.

Jesse A. Helms, Here’s Where I Stand: A Memoir (Jesse Helms Center, 2005), p.186.

Fictional Fact #5:

Jesse Helms opposed civil rights.

Actual Fact:

Jesse Helms may have opposed the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, but he did not oppose the belief that all citizens deserved to have civil rights. As a matter of personal and conservative beliefs, Jesse Helms did not think the federal government should interfere in what he believed were states’ rights issues. In 2005, Helms wrote:

I did not advocate segregation, and I did not advocate aggravation. By that I mean that I thought it was wrong for people who did not know, and who did not care, about the relationships between neighbors and friends to force their ideas about how communities should work on the people who had built those communities in the first place. I believed right would prevail as people followed their consciences.

Often detractors point to Helms’ filibuster of Martin Luther King Day as evidence of his opposition to civil rights, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Helms opposed the bill enacting Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday because of his concerns about King the man, not King’s skin color. In his memoir Here’s Where I Stand, Helms wrote:

Dr. King was a masterful orator. His initial commitment to nonviolence was laudable – but Dr. King was not always careful about his associates or his associations…Dr. King was drawn into the Vietnam debate and went on record describing his own country as ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.’ At one point he likened this country to Nazi Germany. In an appearance in April 1967…he delivered a speech that Time magazine described as ‘demagogic slander that sounded like a script from Radio Hanoi.’

Steps were taken to seal his FBI files for fifty years. The bill to establish a Martin Luther King holiday was rushed through both houses of the Congress without any appropriate committee hearings…And with all this, I simply could not go along.

Regarding what some news outlets state as fact, Senator Helms never called Dr. King a communist. Helms wrote, “I have never stated and do not believe the Dr. King was a Communist. I do regret his willingness to include among the advisors for his organization those whose records prove they were Communists.”

Senator Helms, along with other member of Congress, also believed the additional day of paid holiday leave for all federal employees would be too expensive and contribute towards the rising federal deficit. In fact, until the day before the bill passed, President Reagan also opposed the creation of the federal holiday honoring King, Jr. citing the cost to taxpayers.

When Senator Helms announced his retirement, in 2001, Walter Russell Mead wrote in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section:

If Mr. Helms can be seen as one of the great conservative figures of American history…he also deserves to be remembered as one of a handful of men who brought white Southern conservatives into a new era of race relations.

This was not my initial impression of Mr. Helms, when as a young boy in North Carolina during the civil rights movement I listened to his anti-integration, anti-Martin Luther King commentaries on WRAL-TV. But once the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s was enacted, Mr. Helms…did something very revolutionary for Southern white populists. He accepted the laws and obeyed them…Even as the passions of the civil-rights movement were at their height…shunned violence…hired African-American staffers and gave African-Americans the same level of constituency service they gave whites. Even their opposition to affirmative action is based on their claim that these principles violate what ought to be a color-blind stance on the part of the government…He disciplined and tamed the segregationist South even as he represented it to a hostile nation.

Mead closed his article with this statement:

Like many…Americans, I do not agree with much of what Jesse Helms stands for. But as he prepares to step down from the Senate, I cannot help but feel that we are losing something all too rare in American politics: a man who consistently put principle before expediency, loyalty before ambition. In these qualities, we could use a lot more like him.

In his earliest correspondence, Jesse Helms rejected the doctrine of white supremacy and as manager of WRAL-TV he hired both minorities and women and even proposed to set up a department at WRAL for the sole purpose of training minority candidates for significant career opportunities. As a U.S. Senator he was known and appreciated by the Capitol workforce for his genuine friendship and interest in them and as noted in Washingtonian Magazine, was voted the nicest Senator by the Capitol Hill staff.

Jesse A. Helms to A.T. Spaulding – August 2, 1965

African Americans such as James Meredith, who desegregated the University of Mississippi, have recounted their positive staff experiences with Senator Helms. In fact, Senator Helms was responsible for the hiring of the first African-American to serve on the Republican or Democratic professional staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Also as a Senator, he was responsible for the nomination of numerous federal attorneys and judges who prosecuted the KKK and other racist groups and individuals for a variety of crimes.

The archives of WRAL Viewpoint editorials from the 1960s include Jesse Helms’ high praise for African-Americans such as Rev. Leon Sullivan, Asa Spaulding and others whose leadership demonstrated that dreams matched by diligence could offer any American a better future. An editorial praising the peaceful way in which a young architecture student by the name of Harvey Gantt integrated Clemson University illustrates Jesse Helms’ support of progress that was genuine and sustainable.

Viewpoint #534 – January 29, 1963

Viewpoint #1281 – January 28, 1966

Regarding homosexuality, as a matter of personal faith, Senator Helms did not believe God intended men or women to adopt a homosexual lifestyle. His views were entirely compatible with the tenants of the Manhattan Declaration and shared by many Americans. Helms was known and respected by all who recognized his concern for people. He was known for his kindness and personal efforts to help those in distress. How telling that those who choose to portray him as something he never was exhibit no more conscience in repeating lies about him after his death than they did in expressing their hatred of him, defacing his home, insulting his staff or invading his offices when he was alive.

His detractors persist in their vilification even though it was Helms who worked tirelessly to protect the very principles of freedom that homosexuals are denied in many other nations, including the seven Muslim nations where they would be subject to the death penalty simply because of their sexual orientation.

Senator Helms believed that laws against physical violence should protect all members of our society and should be enforced justly by those who serve in law enforcement and the justice system. He believed that brutality was no less egregious when victims were members of any particular segment of our society; it was always wrong and should not be tolerated.

Sources:

Walter Russell Mead, “Farewell to a Great Jacksonian,” Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2001.

Jesse A. Helms, Here’s Where I Stand: A Memoir (Jesse Helms Center, 2005), p. 161-162.

WRAL Viewpoint editorials and correspondence, courtesy The Jesse Helms Center Archives, Wingate, North Carolina. *Parts of these Viewpoints and correspondence are often used out of context by authors to show Helms’ opposition to civil rights. However, the content clearly shows that Helms only opposed the piece of legislation, not the civil rights each American deserves. In an effort to be transparent, and to not merely choose which parts of historical records prove our thesis, we have provided the Viewpoints and correspondence in their entirety.

Fictional Fact #6:

Senator Helms’ “Hands Ad” against Harvey Gantt purposefully used racist appeal.

Actual Fact:

The campaign commercial highlighted Gantt’s comfort with government policies requiring employers to hire and promote for the purpose of filling quotas instead of recognizing individual abilities.

The Senate failed, by one vote, to override President Bush’s veto of legislation to require employers to hire and promote a percentage of their employees because of their minority status. Senator Helms opposed the bill the first time the Senate considered it and was not in favor of the veto override. In a speech Gantt gave shortly after that vote, he stated that he strongly supported the legislation and had he been in the Senate, it would have become law.

To help voters understand the practical reality of the law Gantt favored, the ad explained how the law would work. People who were fully qualified for jobs would be passed over so that jobs would be filled by candidates who might not have the same skills but had minority status. The ad pointed out that Senator Helms believed every person was entitled to go as far as he/she could by making the most of talents and opportunities.

By the time the ad made it to television, there were less than two weeks left in the campaign. There were accusations that this was a planned last-minute attack, but of course that simply was not true since the vote and Gantt’s comments happened just a few days earlier.

In a 2005 interview with reporter Jim Morrill, Helms had this to say about the race issue:

The truth is the truth whether people choose to accept it or not. Let me be very clear. From my earliest days I was taught to respect all people. It is just that simple. I didn’t need to shift my position because it was always on the side my parents expected me to take and modeled by their example. I never took the time to argue with the nonsense claims that I was a racist because I knew the truth and more importantly every African-American with whom I had ever enjoyed a friendship or who worked with me in any capacity knew the truth, too. The well-known ‘hands’ ad . . . had nothing to do with race and everything to do with a quota bill that I opposed and Mr. Gantt said he would support if he was elected. That bill was just plain wrong and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed that quotas like those proposed in the bill are unconstitutional. This particular bill was not only unfair to job applicants, it was also unfair to employers who would have been forced to somehow prove that they had no intention of hiring anyone but the best qualified applicant.