It has been strange, these past few years, to live in a North Carolina where its best-known political orator and social critic was silent after a long career of commenting on all things.
The Jesse Helms who first rose to public notice on small Eastern N.C. radio stations, then editor of a banking magazine and finally a television personality and spokesman for conservative causes, went increasingly quiet after retiring from the Senate six years ago.
A combination of age, assorted ills and the onset of vascular dementia robbed Helms of the vigor and dynamism that propelled him into public life in the 1950s and gave him the physical and mental stamina to take on so many conservative causes over more than half a century in the public eye.
His death early Friday morning at age 86 came as almost a postscript to a career that set him up to oppose the jolting series of changes that came about in America in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
He used the language of the Jim Crow era to fight for a culture that kept public schools segregated, public accommodations white and that regarded any government attempt to wipe out discrimination as un-American. He once called UNC “the University of Negroes and Communists” and told reporters in Raleigh as late as 1979 that segregation was not wrong during its heyday – “Not for its time,” he said.
It is important to remember that Helms spoke for a generation of Southerners who were uncomfortable with change from the social customs that had prevailed since the end of Reconstruction. He even spoke for whites who would not use the same language, but who liked the fact that Helms would say what they were thinking.
The popular following he built during his years of caustic criticism of civil rights protesters helped put him in political power in 1972 and in position to change national politics.
Helms' political legacy is the large fundraising mechanism that employs mass mailings, the honing of divisive issues to galvanize public support and bring in cash contributions from national donors even for relatively local campaigns, and the well-financed campaign aimed at driving an ideological wedge between voters.
Helms' social legacy is that he failed to stop the arrival of legislation and development of government policy aimed at providing equal rights for minorities.
The world changed around Jesse Helms even as he was, for a time, one of its most engaging stars.
When he came to the Senate in early 1973, he was surrounded by some of the strongest defenders of the “Southern way of life”: Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, John Stennis of Mississippi, Herman Talmadge of Georgia. When he died, an African American man was running for the White House.
Helms was interested in far more than maintaining the social mores of the time. He was keenly interested in slowing the increase of government spending and in the conduct of foreign policy. He was especially interested in opposing socialistic governments he saw as a threat to the United States – a commitment that led him to support dictators such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet.
But he never could shrug off the reputation that first brought him to power – that of a racially divisive politician willing to exploit human fears of difference.
He bristled at any suggestion that his outlook was racially motivated, yet during his last campaign in 1996, he reassured an audience in Goldsboro that he had not changed his views: “You're daggone right it's the same old Helms.”
In a memoir published after he left the Senate, Helms wrote, “I did not advocate segregation, and I did not advocate aggravation. … 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.”
Jesse Helms followed his conscience. If he had gotten his way, there would have been no civil rights acts, no voting rights acts, no holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And he failed.