Jul 09 2008
the entire program
GUEST: Kevin Gray, Longtime civil rights organizer in South Carolina and former president of the state ACLU, author of numerous books including the forthcoming “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.”
Vice President Dick Cheney alongside members of the U.S. Senate attended the funeral held yesterday for former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. The controversial right-wing politician died last weekend on July 4th at the age of eighty-six due to declining health. Posthumous praise in the press has characterized the former Senator as an confrontational conservative ideologue with a tenacious fighting spirit much more so than as a lawmaker with openly racist and homophobic beliefs who attacked welfare, affirmative action, and other social programs. Despite a political career that included opposing civil rights legislation and filibustering a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., Helms declared himself in his published memoirs to be “not the least bit racist.” When Helms announced his retirement from the senate in 2001, major corporate media outlets often downplayed the issue of racism in their retrospectives. Now with the death of the five-term Senator, obituaries in the corporate media once again have danced around using “racism” as a word to define Helms’ life in politics opting instead for terms such as racially “charged” and racially “tinged.”
Sonali Kolhatkar: Some have said that 4th of July, is the day that Jesse Helms died, was quite appropriate. What was your reaction?
Kevin Gray: [inaudible] said it all. I read Christopher Hitchens piece in Slate Magazine ‘Farewell to a Provincial Redneck.’ And I would invite people to go back and read his take on Helms, because it was pretty clear in who he was and, you know, I’m from the South. Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, they were like two peas in a pod, and when they both died, folks sort of just tended to say, locally, “He provided good constituency services.” I mean that’s their legacy, to get around race.
Sonali Kolhatkar: What does that mean, good constituency services?
Kevin Gray: That means that if someone called their office for a favor, if you had a kid in the service and you were trying to get in touch with them, if you had trouble with your social security, if you wanted a bridge in your neighborhood or some money from pork-barrel spending, then they got it. But now, you know, they were rednecks and racist from the word go deep down in their blood. And Jesse Helms, I mean his father was a police officer in the early part of the century and he had a reputation of beating blacks. When you go back and read books like Radio Free Dixie by Tim Tyson that tells the story of Jesse Helms and his relationship with the black community and how he started out as an apologist for the Klan and Klan violence, calling Dr. King an agitator and, you know, I don’t know what is happening to America that you just have to sanitize the truth so much.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Do you think that all of this is, and the press’s approach to it and the sort of whitewashing, if you will, of Jesse Helms’s past is just another symptom of what we see in the press as a complete denial of existing racism that pervades this nation?
Kevin Gray: I’ve been using the word vapid. It’s amazing. It’s like they haven’t read a history book or they don’t believe the history that is written is true. I mean it is the only history there, as it relates to Jesse Helms. You can read history books of the period, read a whole lot of objective accounts of the period that Jesse Helms lived through and the kind of person he was throughout. And it’s just there. So to talk about racially “tinged” as opposed to someone who stoked racism, who didn’t really care whether or not blacks had rights, who glowingly talked about the Confederacy and longing for the Confederacy, and this whole idea of Northern Aggression against southerners who were defending their heritage. I mean this whole idea of who he was essentially; someone who believed in racial superiority. Even if you talk about how he viewed foreign policy; Cuba and the Helms-Burton Act, which we ought to be talking about now. Or believing that Rhodesia, regardless of what we think about Robert Mugabe right now, but believing that Ian Smith should hold on to minority white power in Zimbabwe. You know, it’s like they haven’t even read a history book.
Sonali Kolhatkar: And his homophobia.
Kevin Gray: Yes, homophobia. He was a southern redneck cracker. And that’s being polite. That was bad. Sorry…
Sonali Kolhatkar: You are certainly welcome to, you know, say what you want to say on the airwaves, that’s your opinion. Why don’t we hear Jesse Helms in his own words? First I want to play an excerpt of the ad that was very famous when he was running against his black opponent Harvey Gantt, very interesting with using coded language, coded imagery, this was an ad that was of course commissioned by Jesse Helms in his race against Harvey Gantt and after that we will hear Helms himself speaking about cutting welfare, his position on Cuba that you just brought up, Kevin, and finally his homophobic speech.
“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? Harvey Gantt says it is. Gantt supports Ted Kennedy’s racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications. You’ll vote on this issue next Tuesday. For racial quotas: Harvey Gantt. Against racial quotas: Jesse Helms.”
“I think we ought to do more, more for the elderly, who can’t do for themselves, and the blind, and the crippled, and the sick. But these able-bodied people who wouldn’t hit a lick at a snake if it was trying to bite them, I think the working taxpayers owe those kinds of people nothing.”
“Whether Mr. Castro leaves Cuba in a vertical position or a horizontal position doesn’t matter to me. But he must, he will leave Cuba.”
“Reliable surveys, Mr. President, show that many homosexuals average 16 different sex partners every month. I hate to use the word “gay” in connection with sodomy. There is nothing “gay” about these people.”
Sonali Kolhatkar: The voice of the late Jesse Helms essentially exposing his own bigotry in that and indeed of course racism. And for that first, the earlier excerpt we heard from the ad, you heard the ad talking about minorities taking away jobs. What you didn’t see, if you haven’t seen the ad, is that there was a pair of white-skinned hands holding a letter that was opened that was intended to show that a job for a white person was taken away by a minority.
Kevin Gray: But you know what? That’s still a part of the Republican Party, well, Democrats too now, but that’s still a part of the Republican Party message, be it through Latino and immigrant workers or be it through affirmative action. And now we have got Barack Obama talking about class-based affirmative action and the producer of that commercial on FOX television every night. Or Dick Morris, I should so. So we are still where Jesse Helms put us or had us when he had that ad on the air in North Carolina.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Kevin, what do you say to the fact that he was just one man, even though he was a Senator, he had a lot of power, but, as a single individual in a Senate representing the entire country, he was just a single man? Do you think that Jesse Helms left a pretty serious legacy or can he be dismissed?
Kevin Gray: Listen. It would be simple for us to put racism and white supremacy on Jesse Helms’s back alone. That is the nature of the beast in America, whether or not there is a black person running for president, or a Latino person, you know, the underlay of this country is racism and white supremacy. And when you are talking about a southern white political take on it, a white male political take is all about the Southern strategy and making sure whites stay in power and blacks have limited or no power.
Sonali Kolhatkar: And in fact what was Jesse Helms’s specific role in the Southern strategy? And explain, particularly for our younger listeners, the Southern strategy itself in American electoral politics.
Kevin Gray: Well, many people forget that folk like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond were Democrats until the Civil Rights deal came along and a lot of them were still mad about the New Deal, but they were really mad about Johnson and Kennedy and this whole move toward civil rights. And so they switched to the Republican Party and so for the period after Kennedy, we talk about the Southern strategy where the Republican Party focuses their messages toward black/white racial cleavages; black people taking something from white people, black folk on welfare, black folk being lazy, you know, this whole idea of neoconservative/neo-confederate politics.
Sonali Kolhatkar: And his role we alluded to a little bit earlier, his role in foreign policy. I mean, he was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and in my question about what this single person’s legacy was, he did in many ways succeed, as an individual, in holding back many issues and also undermining diplomatic efforts in this country even as a lone Senator.
Kevin Gray: Absolutely. And if we talk about his legacy as it relates to Cuba and, you know, we have got both McCain and Obama down in Miami talking about maintaining the embargo on Cuba. And a lot of this stuff is a legacy of the Helms-Burton Act and the advocacy against Cuba that Helms led. Now one of the things that we ought to be talking about in this political season if we believe that relations ought be normalized with Cuba, how do we repeal or roll back Helms-Burton and move toward some sort of cooperative relationship with Cuba?
Sonali Kolhatkar: Also, didn’t he play a big role in undermining the United Nations?
Kevin Gray: Absolutely. I mean, that’s part of this whole idea of southern conservative politics, where you are anti-UN, you are just one hair away from, well, I don’t want to go to the John Birch Society, because that would just be too far to go, but these characters are really hard-core, right-wing, anti-communist, cold warriors, only see the world in terms of a two-parent heterosexual, white, paternalistic-looking family structure and it is a scary thing if you think about the differences and diversity in the world.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Kevin, what do you make of the fact that in his last few years, you know, the press is making much of this he became good friends with U2’s Bono and did support efforts to fund programs in Africa to deal with HIV/Aids, etc. Do you think that in any way redeemed, even in the smallest way, Mr. Jesse Helms?
Kevin Gray: That’s a hard question, no. Listen, the architects of the so-called modern Southern strategy in the South were later connected to Nixon. Dent, who was out of South Carolina, who was the chair of the DNC, and Lee Atwater who did just produce in a new movie out called Bogie Man, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond. You know, these guys all died apologizing to black people. I mean Dent said man, I regret what I did to black people. I mean these are the people that crafted this racist campaign trick that Republicans use today and they all died saying I apologize to black people.
Sonali Kolhatkar: But that’s not gonna undo the damage.
Kevin Gray: That doesn’t undo the damage.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Well, Kevin Gray, I want to thank you very much for joining us today. When does your book come out by the way?
Kevin Gray: They say August and I’m trying to finish up. There is one coming out “Waiting for Lightning to Strike” by CounterPunch books and I think they are finishing it up.
Special Thanks to Claudia Greyeyes for transcribing this interview