04 July 2008
Jesse Helms (1921-2008)
Every so often I try to educate Mr. Right about history. He balked one time when I tried to explain the "Southern strategy" developed by Republicans in the 1960s to win over segregationists who resented the Democratic party's turn in favor of civil rights. He claimed never to have heard of such a concept, then denied the whole idea. He refused to believe that Republicans ever appealed to racism. He explained that Republicans had provided the majority of Senate votes in favor of LBJ's civil rights legislation in 1964, without admitting that Barry Goldwater, the man who turned the GOP into a hard-right party, had voted against the legislation and thus earned the electoral votes of several southern states, while many of the Democrats who then opposed civil rights ended up as Republicans. Strom Thurmond is the best known case, but Jesse Helms belongs alongside him as Exhibit 1-A. He didn't run for Senate until 1972, and was a Republican by then, but he'd been a Democratic operative and staffer since the 1950s and a race-baiter all along. So why did he become a Republican? Why, that is, did this segregationist join the "party of Lincoln?" Well, why did Thurmond? Anyone who thinks race had nothing to do with this trend is a fool or a liar. Helms was a malignant force in American politics, his bigotry extending to homophobia along the way, and his demise on the Fourth of July besmirches a date that was virtually sanctified by the joint departure of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1826. If they have any life in posterity, I hope they tar Helms and feather him.