Among President Trump’s worrisome nominees to the judiciary, perhaps none is as alarming as Thomas Alvin Farr, a protégé of Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina senator, and a product of the modern white supremacist machine that Helms pioneered.
Farr, nominated to serve on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, began his career as counsel for Helms’ Senate campaigns, where he participated in racist tactics to intimidate African-American voters. This alone is reason to reject his nomination, as is his apparent lying on the topic to the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Farr’s connections to Helms’ white supremacist causes and political network go much deeper.
Having lived in North Carolina since childhood, I know Helms’ racist legacy, and I hold no doubts that Farr perpetuates it. An unabashed segregationist, Helms was affiliated with the Council of Conservative Citizens, an outgrowth of the White Citizens’ Councils that promoted white supremacy. Helms, who served in the Senate for 30 years, used his honorable seat to support the apartheid regime in South Africa while opposing desegregation, civil rights legislation and the creation of the Martin Luther King’s Birthday holiday in this country.
Farr’s former law partner, Thomas Ellis, was Helms’ top deputy for decades. He also served as a director of the Nazi-inspired, pro-eugenics Pioneer Fund and used funding from that organization to create and bankroll a network of interlocking organizations to support Helms and other political candidates who espoused the notion of a superior white race and opposed civil rights.
Together, Helms, Ellis, and their protégé Farr unleashed a huge propaganda machine that incited hostility toward African-Americans. Farr served as a lead counsel to Helms’ 1990 Senate campaign, which ran the now-infamous “White Hands” television ad, designed to inflame white voter anxiety over Helms’ black opponent, Harvey Gantt. It showed a pair of white hands balling up a rejection letter while a voice said: “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” The same campaign also sent more than 100,000 intimidating postcards to North Carolinians, most of whom were blacks eligible to vote.
Farr represented the Helms campaign in 1984, when it circulated photos of his opponent, Gov. Jim Hunt, with African-American leaders in an attempt to foster white resentment. The racist nature of that campaign was so pronounced that a federal court cited it as an example of how bigotry in elections continued to flourish in North Carolina politics.
A straight line runs from the racial polarization inflamed for decades by Helms and his political machine to the re-emergence of violent white supremacists in the past year in places like Charlottesville, Va.
When Farr graduated from law school, Helms and Ellis brought him into their fold. Farr joined the small law firm of Maupin, Taylor & Ellis, where all of the named partners were openly hostile to civil rights.
Most recently, Farr has carried on Helms’ legacy by helping North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature create and defend in court discriminatory voting restrictions and electoral districts, which were eventually struck down by numerous federal courts that found them to be motivated by intentional racism. In fact, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that the state’s 2013 voter suppression law was aimed at blacks with “almost surgical precision.”
African-Americans seeking to have their rights protected under federal law have much to fear if Farr takes the bench. This is particularly the case in the Eastern District of North Carolina, which covers an area where about half of the state’s African-American residents live and is often referred to as its Black Belt. The Eastern District has not had a black judge in its 145-year history. President Barack Obama’s attempts to desegregate this federal bench were obstructed by Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, who blocked the vote on two highly qualified female African-American nominees and who now supports Farr’s nomination to the Eastern District.
Senators from both sides of the aisle must condemn the experience Farr brings with him. Having practiced white supremacy for decades, Farr is not likely to withdraw. Every senator who condemned the racism on display in Charlottesville must vote to prevent it from having power in the federal judiciary.
William Barber II is a co-chairman of The Poor People’s Campaign and former president of the North Carolina NAACP.