While former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms may be lionized as a champion of the conservative right, his legacy will forever be tainted by his regressive views on race.
Helms, who died Friday at age 86, was eulogized as an icon and Southern gentleman at his funeral Tuesday. Vice President Dick Cheney, a delegation of U.S. senators and hundreds of other mourners were on hand for the occasion.
But while he was beloved by many conservatives, even his admirers would concede that he was a polarizing figure. As his obituary notes, he never lost a political race since winning election to the Senate in 1972, but he never won by a large margin, either.
One of his closest brushes with defeat came in the first of two races against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who is black, in 1990. In that campaign, Helms aired the infamous commercial of a white fist crumpling up a job application as a narrator said, "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?"
Unlike former high-profile segregationists such as South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, Helms' backward views on race never evolved and he never recanted them.
As a senator, Helms voted repeatedly against civil rights legislation, such as extension of the voting rights act and domestic programs favored by blacks. He sponsored bills barring court-ordered school busing for integration, and waged a filibuster against efforts to institute a national Martin Luther King holiday.
Helms was the leading Senate supporter of apartheid South Africa. He also defended white Rhodesia, speaking out against efforts to negotiate its independence from England.
Although he relented during his last year in office, for years he opposed U.S. participation in efforts to combat AIDS in Africa, saying the disease was God's punishment of homosexuals. He also sponsored an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act in 1973 that denied funding to any family planning organization that provided information about abortion, thus depriving millions of Third World women access to assistance.
Helms often used coded racial references in his campaigns to divide the electorate. He also railed against black leaders such as King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in speeches and fundraising letters.
Helms may well be admired for his strong anti-Communist stance, his early support of Ronald Reagan and his deeply held convictions. But history has proven him wrong on matters of race, gender and sexual orientation.
As he is laid to rest, we can only be grateful that fewer and fewer people share his views.