Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Goodbye and Good Riddance, Jesse Helms

Independent Weekly, 7-16-08

I met Jesse Helms in the closing days of the 1990 U.S. Senate campaign in North Carolina. It was at one of his rallies at a Smithfield high school gymnasium in Johnston County, a place with a history of racial tensions. Schools weren’t integrated in Smithfield until 1965, eleven years after Brown v. Board of Education. As late as the mid-70s, a billboard stood on the outskirts of town proclaiming, "This is Klan Country – Help Fight Communism and Integration!"

I went to the rally because I had spent the summer traveling the state to register voters against Helms as a co-founder of Musicians Organized for Voter Education (MOVE). Now I had to see the man in the flesh.

The warm up speakers were other right-wing Republican candidates and current office holders, but none of them held a candle to Jesse when he took the stage. Frail looking and thin even then, his voice nonetheless boomed around the gymnasium like a thunderstorm. He played the crowd's fears in a virtuoso performance, stirring them out of their seats in demagogic riff after riff about homosexuals, liberals, and minorities trying to destroy the North Carolina way of life. He warned of dire consequences that would follow a victory by his African-American opponent, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt.

Helms tossed around staples from that year's version of his stump speech. Like justifying his crusade against art by hissing, "what that perverted, homosexual filth is, is not modern day Michaelangelo, it is modern day Sodom and Gomorrah!" Or mixing bigotry with down home country flavor, telling the crowd to "Think about it. Homosexuals and lesbians, disgusting people marching in our streets demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other. How do you like them apples?"


Illustration by Ethan Wenberg

Never before or since have I witnessed a crowd whipped into such a frenzy, or felt more prejudice and ignorance all around me than I experienced at that rally. Maybe it was that the audience, like those attending many of Helms' events, was made up mostly of senior citizens raised during the segregation era. They grew up bigoted partly because they didn’t know any better, and voted for Helms because he appeared to be like them. Yet to me, it seemed that hatred hung in the air.

When it was over, by chance I ran into Helms as he was leaving the high school, and something possessed me to shake his hand, to see if he felt as menacing as he sounded. His hand was cold, and soft and flabby as a jellyfish. He was just a man, not the Devil. But there was evil in his politics.

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