Fiction: Helms is racist and has opposed the progress of African-Americans.
Fact: From his childhood Senator Helms was taught to respect all people and to understand that all Americans had as their birthright life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Often detractors point to Helms’ filibuster of Martin Luther King day as evidence of his racist motivations, 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.”
Upon the Senator’s retirement 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–along with some of his erstwhile segregationist colleagues like South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond–did something very revolutionary for Southern white populists. He accepted the laws and obeyed them…This is not how Southern politicians responded in the 1870s and 1880s…Even as the passions of the civil-rights movement were at their height, Messrs. Helms and Thurmond (whose father was Ben Tillman’s lawyer) shunned violence. Without ever losing their credentials as hard-core defenders of Southern values, they 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. We are all better off because he managed this difficult high-wire act.”
In his earliest correspondence, Jesse Helms rejected the doctrine of white supremacy and as manager of WRAL-TV he hired both minorities and women in responsible positions, even proposing to set up a department at WRAL for the sole purpose of training minority candidates for significant career opportunities. As a US 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. 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 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.
Fact: Senator Helms was highlighting 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 had 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.”
Fact: To date, no proof has been provided that Senator Helms wrote or spoke that statement.
Thorough research indicates this quote was first attributed to Helms in the mid-1990s by two newspapers (The Charleston Gazette in 1995 and the Capital Times in 1994), without time, place or context mentioned. The media, never bothering to do their homework, has continued to repeat this line as though it was fact. In 2012, the Charlotte Observer printed a retraction after quoting Helms’ supposed line. Furthermore, the two biographers of Helms (neither of which was friendly) did not include this quote in their books.
Fact: The story was fully taken out of context.
Senator Braun recounted the story at a 1993 National Urban League Dinner annual dinner and it was picked up by select newspapers. At the dinner, she accused Senator Helms of singing “I wish I was in the land of cotton…” when he stood behind her on the elevator. The popular southern song, ‘Dixie, was written in the 1850s and is purported to have been played during Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaigns. Braun then recalled that Helms said “I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until you cry. She replied back, “Senator Helms, your singing would make me cry if you sang ‘Rock of Ages.” The crowd at the dinner responded with whoops and cheers according to news accounts at the time.
Braun’s retelling left out the setting in which the verbal exchange had taken place. That year, Helms offered an amendment to renew the civic and service organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, 95-year old patent on the First National Flag of the Confederacy (which is used in the UDC’s insignia and is not the often displayed “Battle Flag” of the Confederacy). The Senate passed the amendment but Braun, who had failed to block the amendment in committee, led a charge to reverse the vote. She delivered an heated floor speech where she claimed Republicans endorsed slavery and supported racism because of the patent award to the UDC. Seeing an opportunity to be “politically correct,” several Senators changed their vote and the amendment was defeated.
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.” Braun’s racism inference was not the first nor last time she disagreed with a point of view by invoking such claims. Columnist Tom Hardy, a Chicago Tribune writer noted this in a column published by the Star-News on August 11, 1993.
“And last week, a National Urban League dinner erupted in thunderous applause after Moseley-Braun related her most recent run-in with Sen. Helms….’Score another one for the new kid in town,’ the Washington Post gushed. But Sen. Moseley-Braun is not usually so good humored in employing her special status when responding to questions she does not like. Typically, rather than reply with reason and candor, she diverts attention with cries of racism or sexism.”
Fact: Jesse Helms was a newsman on WRAL radio and was never employed by the Smith campaign or a 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 and individuals who were strongly opposed to Senator Graham’s campaign did produce such materials. Smith made it abundantly clear to his own staff that he would leave the campaign if any of them were ever to be involved in that sort of campaign.
Hoover Adams, member of the Smith for Senate staff
The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. LXXXII, Published January 2005 All That’s Not Fit to Print: Anti-Communist and White Supremacist Campaign Literature in the 1950 North Carolina Democratic Senate Primary by Jonathan Gentry
Fact: An honest review of the facts of Senator Helms’ record reveals the falseness of this label.
Senator Helms had no fear of homosexual individuals. He 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.
As a matter of personal faith, Helms did not believe that 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 a majority of Americans, as indicated by the support for laws reserving marriage as a union of one man and one woman. 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 most 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 presumed sexual orientation.
Fact: The statement was run without the joke that preceded it.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with the magazine Law and Order:
“When Senator Jesse Helms talked with a reporter from the Raleigh News and Observer and mentioned Bill Clinton’s unpopularity on military bases in the state, he illustrated his point with an anecdote about a Southern sheriff who had just been defeated in an election. ‘He had this big fella with him, about 6 foot 7 and 270 pounds,’ said Helms. ‘Somebody asked, ‘Who’s that?’ The sheriff answered. Any body who can’t get more votes than I did better have a bodyguard.’ Helms then added: ‘Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He better have a bodyguard.’ The News and Observer ran just the Clinton reference without the entire joke that preceded it, and the Associated Press picked up the story. Soon the media were reporting that the Secret Service was investigating Helms’ comments, and the editorial page of the New York Times called for Helms to step aside as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”