Remembering Sen. Jesse Helms Jesse Helms' 30-year career in the U.S. Senate was marked by controversy and racial politics. The fierce advocate for segregation and king maker in North Carolina politics died Friday at the age of 86.
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NPR's David Folkenflik talks with Madeleine Brand on 'Day to Day'

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Remembering Sen. Jesse Helms

NPR's David Folkenflik talks with Madeleine Brand on 'Day to Day'

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms died early this morning in Raleigh. He was 86 years old, and he'd been sick for awhile. He died of natural causes, according to his former chief of staff. Jesse Helms served in the Senate for 30 years, from 1973 to the year 2003. NPR's David Folkenflik covered Congress during Helms' later years, in the '90s, and David joins us now from New York. So, Jesse Helms, David, he is known primarily for fighting racial desegregation.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Absolutely. I mean, he's this executive with Capital Broadcasting in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he unleashed one vitriolic, you know, commentary after another against desegregation in the South, and particularly his beloved home, North Carolina. And he pretty much continued, you know, an attack on desegregation, federal involvement in that and related issues like, for example, affirmative action, for the decades that followed.

BRAND: He fought the Voting Rights Act. He fought also all sorts of civil rights legislation.

FOLKENFLIK: That's correct. He really - he was adamant that this was not the place for the federal government, but he also, you know, would articulate his belief in the primacy of Western cultures, you know, stretching back to what he said was the moral law given to Jewish peoples, the law and order established by the Greeks and Romans, and particularly the Anglo-Saxon idea of what he said was limited government. And he stressed this in a way which seemed to say this is a Christian nation, and in fact, in a sense, this should be a white nation.

BRAND: And he also led a filibuster against declaring Martin Luther King Jr. - that a national holiday, right?

FOLKENFLIK: That's absolutely correct. The level of animus that he evinced against the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was strong. He called him a Marxist. He said the federal government should not be recognizing him. And that this was not somebody worthy of enshrining in the pantheon of people after whom we grand federal holidays to.

BRAND: And how effective was he in terms of authoring legislation, of being a legislator?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, he is really known for opposing things. So he was anti-abortion. He was anti-the United Nations. He would fight it. He was effective. At one point, he snuck a little clause into a bill that got a funding for the United Nations suspended for a year, because it passed without too much notice, and then it was too tough to get it undone. He fought against a lot of things that he didn't want to have happened or held up a lot of judicial appointments, held up people because they were gay. He felt that it's his job to resist the tide of what he saw as the onslaught of federal liberalism.

BRAND: His last major battle for reelection was against a man named Harvey Gantt in the '90s, an African-American. Tell us about that.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I actually wrote a little bit about that when I was an intern for the News and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, where Gantt was from. Gantt was the first black student at Clemson University in South Carolina. He married the first female black student there, and he became a respected, I believe, architect, and then the first black mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, a relatively progressive city. 1990, Gantt posed a real challenge to Helms, and Helms was not 100 percent clear that he was going to be reelected.

One of the things that's widely believed to have been a turning point was an ad put out by the campaign on television, which showed a pair of white hands crumpling up a rejection letter, and a narrator on - ominously intoning that, you know, we all have seen it happen. You know, somebody - you're better qualified for the job, but somebody gets the job, because he's black. And it tapped into concerns about affirmative action, some insecurities about employment, and turned the tide, and Helms won by just a few slim percentage points.

BRAND: Did Helms ever renounce or regret anything that he did?

FOLKENFLIK: Not when it came to the central issue of the South, which is, of course, race and civil rights.

BRAND: Jesse Helms died today. He was 86 years old, former North Carolina senator. We've been talking about that with NPR's David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

BRAND: How to go on a RV trip when gas is so expensive, coming up.

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