Timothy B. Tyson: Review of Jesse Helms's Here's Where I Stand
Timothy B. Tyson won a 2005 Southern Book Award for his history of a racial murder in Oxford, Blood Done Sign My Name.
Jesse Helms has led a remarkable life. The son of a small town lawman, he became the second most politically influential North Carolinian of his generation. His five bruising races for U.S. Senate attracted intense national interest; his 30-year legislative career earned him international fame. His slashing style and amazing money machine virtually reinvented modern politics. Helms bridged the gap between the segregationist South and the New Right. He was also a deeply polarizing figure whose success hinged on his Old South racial views. And so we turn to his memoir with two key questions about his rapid rise and his racial politics: How did he do it? And why did he do it?
His book's title, "Here's Where I Stand" promises an uncompromising plate of North Carolina barbecue, served up hot with red pepper vinegar. But it delivers a broth so thin, as Sen. Paul Douglas once said of a civil rights bill that Helms nevertheless opposed, that it is "like soup made of the shadow of a crow which had starved to death." This tough, bare-knuckled pol begs us to see him as a figure from Mayberry, presenting his life as the nostalgic saga of a small-town boy who makes good by defending the free-enterprise system, befriending his fellow man, and standing by the woman he loved. Of course, Helms could only join Floyd and Andy and Barney down at the barbershop by ignoring huge chunks of his actual life, and therein lies the tale.
Helms begins his story in the small town of Monroe, where he was born in 1921, son of Jesse Alexander Helms Sr., the chief of police. He portrays "Big Jesse" as "six feet five inches tall and tough when he needed to be," and also as a saint who reflected the virtues of his town and his time. "Monroe was the kind of place where you knew just about everybody," Helms recalls, "and just about everybody knew you." What Helms does not tell us is that many of Monroe's black residents knew Big Jesse's boot better than they did the man himself. "He had the sharpest shoe in town," said Ray House, a white man close to the Helms family, "and he didn't mind using it."
Educated at Wingate and Wake Forest, young Jesse Helms started his journalism career at The News & Observer, where he also met and married Dorothy Coble. After a stateside stint in the Navy, Helms met A.J. Fletcher, a right-wing businessman whose Capitol Broadcasting Co. sought to offset the influence of the supposedly liberal News & Observer. Hired as news director in 1948, Helms set out to shield the South where he grew up from the fresh breezes that blew through the postwar era.
Helms' first big break came during the infamous Democratic primary for the Senate in 1950 between Frank Porter Graham, beloved liberal former president of the University of North Carolina, and Willis Smith, a respected conservative lawyer from Raleigh. Ostensibly a reporter covering the race, Helms was deeply involved in Smith's campaign -- a fact he dodges with Clintonian parsing: "I had no official role in Mr. Smith's campaign."
Helms suggests that race was an issue in the campaign but avoids the details. He does not tell us that Smith forces proclaimed "White People Wake Up," warning that "Frank Graham favors mingling of the races." Smith organizers accused "Dr. Frank" of being a Communist dupe and called UNC "the University of Negroes and Communists," though it was still segregated. Helms disavows any connection to these ugly attacks, claiming, "It would have been unthinkable for me to do or allow anything to be done that assaulted that fine man's [Graham's] character."
Nevertheless, when Smith won election to the Senate, Helms went to Washington as his administrative aide. Two years later, he joined Richard Russell's segregationist crusade for the White House. Moving back to Raleigh after Russell lost, Helms became a bank lobbyist and served on the City Council.
In 1960, as the sit-ins rippled out across the South from North Carolina, Fletcher again hired Helms at WRAL-TV, this time to do nightly editorials. Here was the crucial break in Helms' life. His attacks on civil rights and campus radicals won him a wide following. And yet his book provides none of the flavor of the editorials he would ride to power. He doesn't mention his diatribes against "Negro hoodlums" and "forced integration," as if segregation had been voluntary. He does not repeat his assertion that the "so-called" civil rights movement "is about as non-violent as the Marines landing on Iwo Jima." Helms does not explain why his byline appeared in the pages of The Citizen, the journal of the segregationist White Citizens Council.
"I never advocated segregation, and I never advocated aggravation," Helms now claims. But in fact, segregationist backlash was his ticket to the top. He supported segregationist candidates and organizations from his early days in politics. Helms outlined what he called "the purely scientific statistical evidence of natural racial distinctions in group intellect" and equated the Ku Klux Klan with the NAACP, though one flung dynamite and the other filed lawsuits. Praised by the KKK, candidate Helms said merely, "I appreciate anybody saying complimentary things about me." When a young black man applied for membership in First Baptist Church in Raleigh, churchman Helms rabidly and successfully opposed his acceptance -- apparently "Here's Where I Stand" did not have room for that anecdote.
His assaults on the civil rights movement won Helms a U.S. Senate seat in 1972, part of President Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy," which hammered together a new white Southern base for the GOP. Strom Thurmond, the old "Dixiecrat" war horse who twice led segregationist stampedes out of the Democratic Party, campaigned tirelessly for Helms.
Helms became a decisive force in the rise of modern conservatism. Along with Richard Viguerie, who marched George Wallace's financial supporters into the armies of the New Right, Helms pioneered direct-mail fund raising. His support for Ronald Reagan in the North Carolina Republican primary in 1976, defying a sitting president of his own party, proved historic. Reagan became first the darling and then the standard-bearer of the New Right. Helms, like Wallace and Thurmond, bridged the old segregationist movement with the new conservative revolution though, unlike Helms, Wallace and Thurmond both recanted their white supremacy and won many black votes.
Unfortunately, Helms' memoir mutes his historic contributions. Denial of his opposition to racial equality is perhaps the central theme of the book; Helms must have been tempted to steal Eleanor Roosevelt's old book title, "Some of My Best Friends Are Negro." His tribute to his father, a notorious racial enforcer who chased peaceful demonstrators off public property in 1961 with a pistol, twice recounts how "Big Jesse" taught him never to use the n-word. His opposition to the MLK holiday, he says, was a matter of anti-communism, not white supremacy. His race-baiting Senate campaigns are carefully scrubbed of content, even the unscrupulous "white hands" ad, which encouraged white working people to blame their economic woes on minorities and affirmative action and nailed Harvey Gantt on the cross of racial backlash.
Denying that he ever cared about race, Helms now claims to have been defending "free enterprise." In fact, segregation undermined the market economy, using laws to restrict whom businesses could employ or serve.
Helms also claims to have been defending "the Southern way of life," and charges that the civil rights movement "ripped away at the customs and institutions people cared about. Black neighbors and white neighbors depended on each other, and the vast majority lived in harmony."
But even in Monroe, the hamlet that Helms calls home, Klan terrorists punished blacks and whites who tried to exercise their freedoms of speech and association. J. Ray Shute, scion of one of Monroe's leading white families who long served as mayor, founded the Human Relations Council in 1955 to encourage "orderly discussion of common problems" across the color line. For this he endured social ostracism, economic reprisals and at least 15 shots fired into his home. Black leaders suffered worse, and Jim Crow laws and customs barred blacks from nearly everything but menial labor. This is the "liberty" Helms lauds, never acknowledging that segregation was not a free choice. "If we had started a fight against [segregation]," Ray House said of Monroe, "somebody would have shot us."
As a literary work, "Here's Where I Stand: A Memoir" never fails to disappoint. Platitudes plod from page to page. Shopworn phrases and political cant grind the reader down. Whatever his failings as a writer, however, Helms must be given his due. After all, he is almost certainly the second most politically effective North Carolinian of his generation.
The most influential Tar Heel of the Helms era, Ella Jo Baker, is a black woman from Littleton whose name will not be familiar to most. But during World War II, Baker built a mass base for the NAACP in the South. In the 1950s, Baker organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which lifted Martin Luther King Jr. to international acclaim. And in 1960, when these two organizations proved hesitant in the face of the student sit-ins, Baker summoned these young new Southerners to Raleigh to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These three groups, the NAACP, SCLC and SNCC, won battles that forever altered the arc of American history. Their achievements still echo around the globe, wherever people resist tyranny and combat what King called the "thingification" of human beings.
Helms will go down in history as one of the most able and relentless adversaries of the South's homegrown freedom movement. It is a shame that he lacked the gumption to tell us why.
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Michael Green - 11/6/2005
If pointing out that Jesse Helms lies about whether he was a race-baiting segregationist is bombast, then bombast is a very good thing, indeed.
Frederick Thomas - 10/27/2005
"Helms will go down in history as one of the most able and relentless adversaries of the South's homegrown freedom movement."
Tyson clearly feels he must attack this successful and popular Southern politician, and his book, as the price for staying in tight with his leftie political chums.
Rating Tyson's review, I can only say it is as boring and predictable as it is bombastic. Self-righteous hate speech just ain't very interesting.
It surprizes me that the Raleigh News and Observer would turn over book review responsibilities to one so obviously incapable of objectivity.
But then, guess it shows where they are coming from too.