RALEIGH, N.C. (BP)–Jesse Helms, the outspoken and sometimes controversial five-term senator from North Carolina who was a champion of pro-life and pro-family causes, died July 4. He was 86.
A member of Hayes Barton Baptist Church since 1966 — a Raleigh congregation dually aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — Helms was first elected as a Republican to the Senate in 1972 and served for 30 years until he chose not to seek re-election in 2002.
Dubbed “Senator No” for his willingness to cast the single vote against bills, Helms came into power with the Democrats in charge and left with Republicans in power. All during that time, he was one of the most — if not the most — conservative member of the chamber. He may be best remembered for his unwavering anti-communist views.
“It think it’s appropriate and fitting that Jesse died on July the Fourth,” Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press. “He was a patriot. … He was a very strong pro-life, very strong pro-family and very strong anti-communist advocate.”
Helms famously backed Ronald Reagan during the 1976 Republican primary, helping the future president win North Carolina and giving him a boost in his bid to capture the GOP nomination over a sitting president, Gerald Ford. Reagan fell short that year but won the nomination and presidency four years later.
“Reagan had lost five straight primaries [prior to North Carolina],” Land said in reference to 1976. “He was out of money and on the verge of having to drop out of the campaign when Jesse and his machine went to work for him in North Carolina and raised the money for [Reagan] to give 30-minute speeches all over the state on television. He went on to win North Carolina and a huge string of victories and almost unseat an incumbent president. Ronald Reagan said Jesse Helms’ contribution was absolutely invaluable to his political career. So without Jesse we might not have had Ronald.”
Likewise, the National Review wrote in an editorial that it’s “not far-fetched” to believe that “without the assistance of Helms in 1976,” Reagan would not have won in 1980.
Land said his best personal memory of Helms took place in 1984 when he was waiting to interview the North Carolina senator for a radio program.
“He was being interviewed by one of the network people,” Land said. “This woman told Helms, ‘Your position on this issue is really hurting you in your re-election campaign in North Carolina and it’s a very close race. Why are you taking this position?’ … Jesse, who was tall, looked down at her, ‘I didn’t come here to get re-elected.’ He said, ‘I’m here to serve my country, and truth be known, I’d rather go back and live in North Carolina full-time. I’m doing this as a sacrifice for my country.’
“I thought, ‘That’s unusual.’ There are people like that in Washington, but not many and not enough.”
But while Helms was on the right side of many issues, including abortion, “gay rights” and communism, history will view him as wrong on civil rights. He opposed civil rights legislation of the 1960s and, years later, also opposed making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. His supporters, though, contended he was not a racist; he had blacks on his staff — one of them being James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi.
“Of course I am not anti-black, and any number of African-American friends and Capitol Hill staffers who have known me over the years would be happy to set that record straight,” he told National Review’s Jay Nordlinger in 2005. “I have always been opposed to violence from any quarter; to unconstitutional quotas; and to politicians who try to rob people of their ability to dream their own dreams and reach their own goals through their own efforts by selling them the lie that they can’t succeed without the government running their lives. I have always believed that the American Dream is the birthright of every American and that the free-enterprise system is the route to secure that dream.”
Land said Helms had some “blind spots.”
“One of them was tobacco,” Land said. “He was, unfortunately, very protective of the tobacco industry and resisted any efforts to rein it in or to regulate it. And, while there was ample evidence that he was not personally a racist, when he opposed the Martin Luther King Holiday as vigorously as he did, it was not one of his finer moments.”
Compiled by Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press.