Jesse Helms was a segregationist, and a nasty one at that.
Long after his contemporaries abandoned old “Jim Crow,” Helms kept playing the race card when it served him politically. And when he was not picking on African-Americans, he picked on ethnic minorities, immigrants, trade unionists and gays and lesbians.
While Helms served thirty years in the Senate, his tenure on Capitol Hill was never so historically significant as his crude pursuit of power and the unsettling lengths to which he went to retain it. “He’ll be remembered, in part, for the strong racist streak that articulated his politics and almost all of his political campaigns – “they were racialized in the most negative ways,” recalled Kerry Haynie, a political science professor at Duke University.
Helms’ death Friday, at age 86, brings America a small step closer to the end of the post-antebellum era in our politics that saw the men who had battled to deny the franchise to millions of Americans because of the color of their skin — and who fought even more aggressively to deny adequate education, nutrition and health care to African-American children — make the easy transition to leadership positions in the “modern” Republican Party.
Helms was not always a Republican. As a young man of the Old South, he had no interest in joining an organization that, well into the 20th century, proudly referred to itself as “the party of Lincoln.”
Only when the Grand Old Party adopted a southern accent and replaced references to the Great Emancipator with grumping about “racial quotas” did Helms make the switch to the party of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and John McCain. He brought along the symbols and sounds of the “Jim Crow” Democrats, insisting that Republican events celebrate the memory of Robert E. Lee and encouraging the singing of “Dixie” at party rallies.
Helms was not just any Republican, however. He was an essential player in the remaking of the party. With his National Congressional Club, a money-raising machine that helped forge what came to be called “the New Right” within the GOP, Helms aide Carter Wrenn says the senator forced “the realignment of the Republican party.”
“You can’t really separate the growth of the Republican party from Jesse’s career,” explained Wrenn.
The wily Richard Nixon was one of the first Republicans to recognize Helms’ utility.