It was a bit stunning to wake on Friday, July 4 and read that former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms was dead. My first thought was, finally. My second thought was, look at the misery this one man caused in the course of his 30 years in U.S. Senate. And, finally, I cried. Not for Helms, but for those who died due to Helms’ bigoted actions.
I cried for the thousands of men, women and children Helms condemned to harassment and death here in our country because they were infected with the virus that caused AIDS. Helms, at every twist, turn and opportunity, actively sought to stop funding to find treatments and cures for this disease. During a debate in 1988 on funding for HIV — a bill sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachuesetts and Sen. Orin Hatch of Utah — Helms said “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.” He opposed the bill on those grounds.
And my tears were for artists whose dreams were crushed by Helms’ war on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He was personally offended by some of the art which was produced, and, therefore, he opposed funding all the art produced through grants from the NEA. Whether you like the NEA or not, the fact remains that it funds some of the most important cultural programming in our country. Without it, Big Bird would not be a household name. But Helms took issue with Robert Mapplethorpe’s “self portrait.” It is important to remember the name of the piece, because it is a picture of a bullwhip in the anus of a man, in this case Mapplethorpe. But Helms launched an attack on Mapplethorpe’s work which had Americans believing HIV positive gay male artists were running around the country, with money from tax dollars, and shoving bull whips up the anuses of unsuspecting good, decent hard-working middle class Americans.
My pain and anger were for the African American youth who grew up in North Carolina listening to Helms attack them as less than human. For Americans who had to suffer through his attempts to end school busing, abortion, integration and more. Helms was no hero. He was vile creature who preyed on our basest fears. He was the precursor to the era of Karl Rove’s divide and conquer stratagem of the last eight years.
I am ashamed to think that my country held up as a great thinker and a leader the likes of Jesse Helms who hated the United Nations, accused every international diplomatic move an act of treason against the U.S. and worked diligently to make sure that some Americans were less likely to achieve the promises of the American Declaration of Independence.
Helms’ cynical attacks of the foundation of our democracy are also painful to remember. He was found on numerous occassions to have broken federal election law to win re-election by illegal fundraising. He unleashed an ad in North Carolina that made the Willie Horton affair in 1988 look simple. In the ad, attacking affirmative action, he said “You needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority.”
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…”
The death of Sen. Helms on the anniversary of the release of the Declaration is a reminder to all of us, that even in the darkest hours and with our worst leaders, America can make it through. In spite of the voices of division, we can rise up as one voice, and shock and shame the voices of hatred in our midst.
Helms’ legacy is not that of great statesman, but rather, history will remember him as the mean-spirited, hateful little man he was, and remember that America moved forward without him, to a better world and a better nation.
When historians look back on this era, they will be reminded of the parallels of destruction wrought on America by Helms’ opinions and cynical policies and those of George W. Bush. In the end, we will remember that America is stronger for having risen above Bush and Helms, and found our common humanity by rejecting the politics of division.
— Todd A. Heywood is the capitol correspondent for Between the Lines, the statewide LGBT newspaper of Michigan, as well as a Fellow for the Center for Independent Media. His work can be found regularly on www.Pridesource.com and www.MichiganMessenger.com.