Helms' proposal stirs old foes, old criticisms

Dec. 07, 2012 @ 06:18 PM

Even after death, Sen. Jesse Helms is controversial.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) introduced a bill that would rename Raleigh's historic Century Post Office for the five-term senator.

News of the proposition traveled fast. To some, Helms was a Conservative icon, uncompromising in his political and social ideals. He was unafraid to be the only voice opposing an issue. He reveled in the moniker, Senator No, given to him by the media and his critics. He was remarkably effective in Washington, D.C., able to delay or halt national and international matters he opposed.

To others, naming a federal building for Helms in Raleigh would be sign that North Carolina is moving backwards.

In Helms' hometown of Monroe, he is still seen as a positive force for the state and the nation.

Monroe native Estelle Snyder worked for Helms and helped the former senator write his memoirs. She said most people have a skewed image of Helms based on exaggerated media portrayal.

Over the years, Snyder has read thousands of pages of Helms' writings and held numerous conversations with Helms and his family. Many of the negative quotes attributed to Helms are taken out of context or fabricated, she said.

"A lot of that is characterization and a lot of it is about language and how it changes over time," Snyder said. "One of the things that's changed is statements that are very racist in 2012 were not considered racist in the 1960 when he said them."

A phrase often attributed to Helms was his reference to the University of North Carolina as the "University of Negros and Communists." Snyder said that after nearly two days of poring over Helms' notes, editorials and news stories about him, she could not verify he ever truly made that statement.

"He never said it," Snyder said. "I would swear to it under oath in court."

Resistance to Ellmers' bill has been loud if not widespread. Progress North Carolina began an online petition opposing the renaming. As of Friday, more than 4,300 people had signed the petition. More than a few accompanying comments decried Helms' record of voting against issues of civil rights, environmental protection, racial and gender equality, ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, help for the disabled and food stamps for poor children. 

"You don't honor a monster," an anonymous petitioner from Oxford wrote.

Others condemned Helms' statements as inflammatory, and criticized his pride over not changing his views according to the times.

"Otherwise, he chose — deliberately and with forethought — to put himself forth as the champion of a narrow-minded, mean-spirited Southern racist spirit with direct ties to a violent past. He engaged in rhetoric that was rightly considered hate speech and embraced it as his trademark. He liked the publicity his outrageous positions brought him and he reveled in the controversy they created," Progress NC contributor Katy Munger wrote on the group's website.

Snyder said Helms opposed certain laws because they inflated an already large government and cost taxpayer money. He voted against things like establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday because it was costly. He favored a holiday recognizing all civil rights leaders.

A Washington Post story from Oct. 24, 1983, said Helms blocked legislation, calling King an "extremist" and focusing on King's ties to people Helms' said were members of the Communist Party. He later said there was "no question" that King was a Marxist.

Snyder said Helms' critics assumed but never stopped to ask if Helms' comments were racially motivated.

"If there was a fault in Sen. Helms, it was a naiveté to just how bad people could be," Snyder said.

Proponents of the bill to rename Century Post Office have focused on Helms' success during his five Senate terms.

"Jesse Helms was a transformative figure in our state’s history who placed service to his constituents above all other priorities in his public life," Sen. Richard Burr said in a statement Thursday. "Whether they agreed with him on political issues or not, North Carolinians had a dedicated advocate in Washington in Jesse Helms, and this bill will help to commemorate his legacy and his service to our state."

Helms was a Conservative who did not back down from fights to keep government spending low and promote free enterprise, Snyder said.

"I'll never forget, one day he said to me, 'Lots of people say they're Conservatives and some of them actually are,'" she said.

The senator's widow, Dorothy Helms, released a statement about Ellmer's bill.

"The entire Helms family was deeply touched that Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) introduced a House Resolution which will name the historic Century Post Office in Raleigh after Jesse," Mrs. Helms wrote. "His office was located in that very building for most of his Senate career.  He was very proud to have his Senate office in that building on Fayetteville Street — Raleigh’s ‘Main Street.’  Jesse was a letter writer throughout his entire life so it’s especially meaningful that the building to be named in his honor contains a post office.  We are most humbled by Congress’ consideration of this resolution."