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Commentary: Don't sanitize Helms' racist past

  • Story Highlights
  • Roland S. Martin: Tributes hail Jesse Helms as a conservative champion
  • Martin: Helms once purposely whistled "Dixie" in elevator with black senator
  • Give Helms credit where it's due but don't cover up his racism, columnist says
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By Roland S. Martin
CNN Contributor
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(CNN) -- Death has a way of sanitizing the most virulent and despicable aspects of prominent lives, especially those who trafficked in racial bigotry.

Roland S. Martin says former Sen. Jesse Helms was an unapologetic conservative but also unabashedly racist.

Roland S. Martin says former Sen. Jesse Helms was an unapologetic conservative but also unabashedly racist.

In the last several years, notorious racists such as former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox and Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina left this Earth, and in efforts to show the humanity of both, tributes poured in, speaking to their Christian faith and unyielding conservative values.

Vice President Dick Cheney spoke warmly of Thurmond at his 2003 funeral, citing his run for president in 1948. But Cheney failed to mention that he ran as an ardent segregationist.

I recall former Sen. Zell Miller holding up a Bible belonging to Maddox as he told the world about Maddox's wonderful faith, never citing how he used that same Bible to deny African-Americans basic rights.

Oh, such good Christian men Maddox and Thurmond were.

Now they are joined in the conservative wing of heaven by former Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who died July 4. I'm sure a freedom-loving man such as Helms wouldn't have it any other way: meeting his maker on the same day the United States celebrates its independence.

The tributes were endless and laudatory, hailing him for being a "conservative champion," according to a piece in USA Today. Some mentioned his opposition to various issues of race, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Even the Rev. Billy Graham, often called "America's pastor," honored Helms in a 174-word statement, ending it by saying that folks "honor his legendary life and extraordinary legacy."

But to recognize Helms properly in his totality, it's important to add to the list of words and phrases to describe the unapologetic conservative Republican: unabashedly racist.

It's easy in this age to say that Helms, who carried his dislike of African- Americans like a badge of honor for 30 years around the U.S. Senate, was a son of the South who was simply honoring good, old-fashioned Southern values. But when you stand in opposition to a bill that would, for the first time, give African-Americans from border to border the constitutionally guaranteed right to cast a vote, then I refuse to call you a stand-up person for the rights of every man, woman and child.

And don't try to suggest that because Helms hired several African-Americans in his office that he was still a good and decent guy who was misunderstood. No, he was very clear in how he looked at issues, and if you had the wrong skin color, sorry, but you didn't fully count as an American.

As the tributes came in, I wonder if anyone had the audacity to ask former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun what she thought of Helms.

Once when she was on the elevator and he saw her, Helms started to sing "Dixie," a call-to-arms song for lovers of the Old South, and clearly an offensive song to anyone black. He later said he did it hoping it would make her cry.

The two also didn't see eye to eye on the Confederate flag. She was an ardent opponent; he a devout proponent.

It was no surprise that when she was appointed to be a U.S. ambassador by President Clinton, who was her chief blocker? Good ol' Jesse.

Look at the effort to integrate the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by Clinton. Helms was steadfast in his effort to block an African-American's appointment to the seat. He and others claimed it was because the court didn't need an additional judge and spending the money was wasteful. But it was evident that Helms didn't want an African-American sitting on what some called the most conservative federal appeals court in the nation.

And no one can forget the overt racism he displayed when running for re-election for the U.S. Senate against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt in 1990 and 1996. Realizing he could lose in 1990, Helms agreed to an ad by Republican strategist Alex Castellanos that showed a white hand destroying a job application with an announcer saying that person needed the job but it was given to a minority.

It worked with the bigots in North Carolina. That ad put Helms over the top and kept his Senate seat safe.

Did Jesse Helms have his convictions? Sure. But an ideological conviction displayed in the political arena doesn't mean we are to overlook a history of denying Americans their rights based on race.

Give Helms credit for ushering in a new brand of conservatism in the country. But don't let that cover up his racism.

Roland S. Martin is an award-winning journalist and CNN contributor. He is the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith." Please visit his Web site at

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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