Don’t mourn Jesse’s death – mourn that his legacy lives

On his outstanding Prodigal Son CD, North Carolina folk and blugrass legend Mike Cross presents us with a high-stepping little ditty called “Bill is in His Grave.” Bill, it turns out, was a scoundrel of the first order, and he’d been recently deceased.

The narrator is asked to say a few words at the funeral, a task that proves daunting for a man who’d rather not speak ill of the dead.

He finally manages this:

If Heaven is pleased when sinners cease to sin
If the Devil is pleased when another soul comes in
If the Earth is glad to be rid of a knave
Then everybody’s happy ’cause Bill is in his grave.

This chorus sprang immediately to mind when I heard this past Friday that another scoundrel, former Senator Jesse Helms – a Tar Heel like both Mike Cross and myself – had departed the world that he worked so hard to corrupt. I hope Cross, who’s truly one of America’s epic musical treasures, won’t mind my invocation of his song on this occasion.

Like his narrator, I was raised to either speak well of people or say nothing at all, and that edict goes double when the subject is freshly dead. On the other hand, I was also taught to live my life in accordance with particular moral principles and to honor the truth above all other things. Perhaps you have, by now, sensed a certain tension in my writing – this is why.

So let me speak plainly and be judged by the fairness of my eulogy, such as it is. I will not gravedance, but I will note that in recent days a lot of raging morons have had all kinds of praise for the late Sen. Helms, that bastion of conservative principles, that stalwart defender of tradition, that foundational champion of the Republican ascendancy, and so on. Hell no, I’m not linking to any of it – if you have a taste for horseshit go get your own shovel.

There are some facts about the Senator’s life and career, though, and we should not allow the protocols of death or the shameless pandering of Helms’ equally corrupt fellow travelers distract us from them. Take this bit, for instance:

As an aide to the 1950 Senate campaign of North Carolina Republican candidate Willis Smith, Helms reportedly helped create attack ads against Smith’s opponent, including one which read: “White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races.” Another ad featured photographs Helms himself had doctored to illustrate the allegation that Graham’s wife had danced with a black man. (The News and Observer, 8/26/01; The New Republic, 6/19/95; The Observer, 5/5/96; Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms, by Ernest B. Furgurson, Norton, 1986)

How about this one:

“The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that’s thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men’s rights.” (WRAL-TV commentary, 1963) He also wrote, “Crime rates and irresponsibility among Negroes are a fact of life which must be faced.” (New York Times, 2/8/81)

Rick Perlstein has more, and so does Pam Spaulding. Jesse never repented, by the way.

One of his most famous moments, of course, occurred during his re-election campaign against one such uppity Negro, Harvey Gantt. Much has been made of George Bush the Elder’s infamous Willie Horton/revolving prison door ad in the 1988 campaign, but it paled in comparison to Jesse’s “hands” spot.

Jesse Helms was an ignorant, bile-spewing hatemonger who left a greasy film on everything he touched. Yes Virginia, there are evil people in the world. There are those who make society a worse place simply by living in it, and when they manage to acquire power they can inflict damage on a scale so great that it may take generations to clean up.

As wonderful as it is that Jesse Helms will no longer be wreaking havoc on our culture, the sad fact is that there’s little time or cause to celebrate because his legacy lives on. He taught others that prejudice and hate are acceptable motivations for governance and his anti-intellectual progeny are ever manufacturing new and more appalling tools for the oppression of the innocent.

Fine – let’s all take a moment to toast the death of an evil human being – truly the world is a better place without Jesse Helms. But make it quick because we have to get back to work. Jesse’s mess isn’t going to clean itself up.


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  • I’ve often wondered why, when someone dies, he or she suddenly becomes the subject of tribute, regardless of merit. Had Hitler died in June of 1939, doubtless the American media would have sung his praises for rebuilding German industry, completely ignoring laws that, by that time, meant Jews in Germany could own nothing, do nothing, sit almost nowhere, and live almost nowhere.

    Jesse Helms was a very, very bad man. I grew up listening to his diatribes on WRAL TV 5 in Raleigh, North Carolina. At the time, I was too young to understand all that he was saying, but I could see the pure dog meanness in the way he said it.

    It sure wasn’t hard to see.

    Helms was a virulent bigot who was convinced of his own superiority in being white and male. Had he been raised in Hitler’s Germany instead of FDR’s America, I have no doubt he would have been a high official in the Nazi Party. He and the Nazis would have understood each other well.

    I do have one thing to thank him for, though. Virginia didn’t cover itself in glory during the civil rights movement. Having Helms next door made us look almost good compared to North Carolina.

  • He’s undoubtedly with Jerry Falwell in that “utopian” (white, straight, obses, racist and ignorant) society in the sky, I’m sure they make a lovely couple. The fact that I am wasting 15 seconds of my life to “comment” on him says it all..I think I’ll stop – such biggotry and hate doesn’t deserve the energy.

  • I first became aware of him in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s – when beautiful, loving people I knew began getting sick, rotting from the inside and dying in agony with no hope of treatment. Jesse Helms blocked funding for research, saying time and again that sodomites deserved what they got… and smirking while he said it.

    My only regret about his death? He didn’t suffer enough first.


  • I shall save my comment on Jesse until WordsDay. I would only say this: if asked if I look forward to spitting on his grave, my reply will be that I never intend to stand in any line that would be so long….

  • On refusing to attend the funeral of a man he despised Mark Twain was urged to at least write a letter to his widow. Twain sent the following note: “While I am not able to attend your husband’s funeral I heartily approve of it.”

    My usual policy is “De mortui nulli nisi bonum”. But for 24 karat, raw gum, 200 proof, Board certified evil I’m willing to put aside principle once in a while.

    Jesse Helms was evil from his opposition to all Civil Rights legislation to his support for the unspeakable and abominable RENAMO.

    My fondest hope is that the Powers That Be will sentence him to endless rebirth as a poor Black lesbian in a world conforming precisely to his pre-mortem specifications.

  • Meanwhile, hats off to L.F. Eason III. Mr. Eason took immediate retirement after 29 years with the NC Department of Agriculture rather than lower the flag in honor of Helms’ death.

  • Wow, check out the negative vibes scribbled here man. Anger isn’t the right way man. I mean the dude is dead…. Show some tolerance he couldn’t afford man.

  • So, Jonas, let me make sure I understand your position. We should always say nice things about people after they die – NO MATTER WHAT THEY DID IN LIFE. Right?

  • Pingback: That New Yorker cartoon: an alternate take | Scholars and Rogues

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