Admittedly, I was never a fan of Jesse Helms, the conservative (an understatement) longtime Senator from North Carolina that just recently died on July 4. His funeral was Tuesday at Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh and was attended by the powerful politicians from both the Democratic and Republican Parties with whom he either forged alliances or did battle with during his 30 years in the Senate.
I never met him personally. Perhaps if I had needed the services of his office I would have had a different opinion of him. Perhaps if I had been around a dinner table with him or sat in a Sunday school class with him or even sat beside him in a pew at church, I would have felt differently. The only Jesse Helms I knew was the public “Senator” Jesse Helms. And I never liked nor agreed with what I saw.
Simply put, Jesse Helms was a racist. He was an ardent segregationist during a time in our history when our nation needed to move beyond that evil national sin. He stood resolutely in the way of that progress.
Unlike George Wallace who years before his death repented of his racism and went on to be a champion for civil rights in Alabama, Jesse Helms’ segregationist ideas remained with him and he was unapologetic about them.
Even Strom Thurmond, the longtime South Carolina senator and founder of the “Dixiecrat” party comprised of Southern Democrats opposed to desegregation, later moderated some of his views. But not “Ole Jess.” He remained true to the Dixiecrat dream.
Jack Betts, an associate editor and columnist for the Charlotte Observer had a column about Jesse Helms in the Raleigh News and Observer called “The Old Style in Racial Relations.” He says:
“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…. 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.”
And so, I have to say that I haven’t grieved Jesse Helms’ passing very much. I think he was an anachronism, and thank goodness the majority of our nation has seen that segregation was an evil system that was anything but “separate but equal.”
Thank goodness most Christian, Baptist Americans today see racism as an evil sin that needs to be overcome. Many of us here in the South have worked a lifetime to try and overcome the racist culture we grew up in. Jesse Helms was as much as he could be a roadblock to those efforts. And now he’s gone.
Rest in peace Jesse, if you can find it. There will be a lot of African-Americans up there with you. Heaven is not segregated.
Glenn Jonas is chairman of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. This column appeared previously on his blog.