From the beginning, Jesse Helms' career was intertwined with race.
His first political involvement was in North Carolina's 1950 U.S. Senate contest. The conservative candidate he backed won after a doctored photo showed his opponent's wife dancing with black soldiers.
As a broadcaster in the 1960s, he was an ardent critic of civil rights.
When the FBI arrested four white Alabama men in the 1965 death of white civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, he asked, “The larger question, and America may as well face it, is why and how did the rage of these men become so great as to prompt them to commit such an outrage. Can it honestly be said there was no deliberate provocation of violence in Alabama?”
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In the Senate, where he long opposed the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, he once told colleagues, “We're free, white and 21, as we say in North Carolina.”
“Jesse Helms was powerful and famous, but he missed an opportunity to be great because he chose the wrong side of history,” Jesse Jackson told the Observer Friday. “The new North Carolina is now celebrated. He fought against it.”
When Helms ran against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, an African American, he ran an ad that showed white hands crumpling a rejection letter as a narrator said the job went to a minority. Critics say Helms used such ads to drive a wedge between white and black voters.
“Jesse Helms definitely used a lot of what I call wedge issues to his advantage politically,” Gantt said Friday. “He was a master at using fear … whether it was communism or gay and lesbian groups or African Americans. He won elections that way and never lost.”
Helms supporters call the hands ad a legitimate way to talk about proposed affirmative action legislation.
“That bill was an affirmative action quota bill,” said John Dodd, who heads the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate. “Now is TV very graphic? Is TV tough? Senator Helms didn't like that ad. He told me he didn't like it. He said it was too hard.”
Kerry Haynie, a Duke University political scientist, gives Helms credit for building the conservative movement and the N.C. Republican Party.
“But at the same time, he built that Republican Party by taking advantage of and manipulating the issue of race,” he said. “Senator Helms was one of the most skillful politicians of his generation.”
Haynie said that while other Southern conservatives, including former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, eventually courted African Americans, Helms never repudiated his former stands.
“Senator Helms never, to my knowledge, relented or apologized for the hurt that he caused or the divisiveness that he injected into the politics of this state or national politics,” he said.
During a 2005 interview, The Charlotte Observer asked Helms how he would respond to such critics.
“The truth is the truth, whether people choose to accept it or not” he said. “Let me be very clear. From my earliest days, I was taught to respect all people. It is just that simple.
“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.”