(CBS) Jesse Helms, the five-term Republican Senator from North Carolina, has died. He was 86.
Helms died in Raleigh at 1:15 this morning, according to the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, North Carolina.
Helms built a career along the fault lines of racial politics and battled liberals, Communists and the occasional fellow Republican during his decades in Congress.
CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss called Helms a politician who knew no middle ground, one of the most conservative men to ever sit in the Senate - and proud of it. Bigger than life in his native North Carolina, he sometimes seemed that way to his political enemies in Washington, too.
Born in Monroe, N.C. in 1921, Helms worked as a reporter and a Navy recruiter before entering politics after World War II, when he worked for North Carolina Senator Willis Smith in Washington.
He returned to Raleigh where he won a seat on the city council, but became best known when he joined Capitol Broadcasting Company, the owner of WRAL (which is now a CBS affiliate), in 1960.
Over the next decade, Helms offered editorial messages, broadcast after the nightly newscasts, which were decidedly ideological - in one, he proposed building a wall around UNC-Chapel Hill (which he dubbed "the University of Negroes and Communists") to contain its "liberal" influence.
The CBS News obit is being a bit kind, seeing as how Helms was one of the network's air personalities ironically enough, during its halcyon, muck-raking “Age of Murrow”. So, let me be blunt here, in my obit of Mr. Helms.
Condolences to his family and survivors who did not share his twisted vision. Because you simply can't pick your family. Good or bad, they are who they are. They're human beings with feelings, regardless oft-times of your transgressions. So again...condolences to those decent members of Mr. Helms' family.
I will not be so sanguine about the late Senator, though.
Helms' and his fellow travelers racist demagoguery drove more Black folk from North Carolina than GM, Ford and Chrysler vehicles combined. My mother, father and at least eight other uncles and aunts ran like runaway slaves from that intentionally racially backward-ized state during Helms' media heyday of 1960 to his Senate Tenure beginning in 1972 and at least a decade into it.
He giddily meant the million or so African Americans in the state, and the twenty-nine million outside his state in the greater United States nothing but ill will and used his legislative cudgel to beat them down every single chance he got. There is no redeeming feature in my eyes to remember him with. Unlike several undeniably talented bigots who strode the last century like colossi—the likes of a Leni Rifenstahl or a D.W. Griffith—genuinely evil-enabling people who still boasted world and culture changing talents, Helms was not talented. Nor was he particularly smart. What he was, was dogged, and vicious—and he applied that doggedness and viciousness to the task of promoting White Supremacy for the better part of half a century. If he had a talent, it was in the application of his personal racial animus in writing and voting for oppressive legislation that denied people of color their so-called inalienable rights. He damn sure managed to somehow make inalienable, “alienable”, so in that respect alone perhaps—in his blunt-trauma-to-the-skull harshness—he was a “talent”. But then...Charlie Manson clearly evidenced a proficient “talent” for psychotic murder, so take that for what it's worth.
Helms left this mortal coil early this morning of The Fourth Of July, Two-thousand and eight, and I could not help but note the brutal irony of that “timing”.
He passed away on Independence Day...a holiday celebrating this country's finally breaking the shackles of a brutal tyranny, while he himself worked his entire life towards the unjust shackling of the freedoms, dreams, aspirations and in many cases, the actual legs and arms of some thirty million African Americans.
Something to note there.
And it happened THIS YEAR, in 2008...so let me say this—I actually wish Helms had hung on to life just a bit longer. Never mind the suffering or pain. I truly wish he'd managed to hang on through a bit of 2009. Not because I cared for him in any way, but for the same reason I wish William F. Buckley and other bigoted, recently-departed retrogrades had stuck around, too.
I wanted to hear the rolling thunder of a million indigestion-sparked, racist gut-rumbles led by Helms' on the day their worst nightmare ever came to pass—namely the extreme likelihood of a Black person being elected to the highest office in the land. Commander-in-Chief. President of The United States of America.
I wanted to hear the half-inch thick rubber band “snap” of an inflexible mind like his giving way under the inexorable push of progress. And have the banshee howl of “Noooooooooooooooo!” be the last thing said as the tattered wraiths from “Ghost” rose from the earth and dragged his wretched soul below.
To hear the cement-mixer-full-of-boulders grinding noise of a thousand Klaverns worth of teeth—gnashing and breaking from rough friction, and maybe Helms' own cheap dentures shattering like a stale fortune cookie under grinding pressure from the unspeakable thing's happening.
But alas, I will not. And for that alone about him, I am sad.
I pray in that steamy place beyond where he has gone to, the words of Frederick Douglass are blasted at him full-volume from a massive, vintage boom-box on an endless loop—with Public Enemy's “Fight The Power” instrumental in the background:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
Those words were for the likes of you, Jesse Helms. You.
Now, you are gone...and the world spins on without you and advances past the boulderous roadblocks you pushed into place.
I shall shed not a single tear. Nor will those who truly cherish the ideals of freedom, justice and equality.
Be on your way, Senator.
Beyond that, A Very Happy Fourth Of July, all.