Jesse Helms is about to publish his big biography (due from Random House ... imagine that!), and according to the N&O, he's unapologetic about his views on race ... feels that voluntary racial integation would have worked eventually. Say what? Sure. Your garden-variety deputy sheriff, who basically thought black people were the animals he was ordained by Gawd to hunt down, was just going to voluntarily give up the night stick. Or that churches, schools, and Woolworth lunch counters would just naturally have found their way to welcoming in everyone? What a crock.
"I did not advocate segregation," Helms writes, proving that even now butter won't melt in his mushmouth, "and I did not advocate aggravation" (says the man who had an entire Excedrin headache named for him, not to mention the antacid taken in his name). "By that I mean that I thought it was wrong for people who did not know, and who did not care, about the relationships between neighbors and friends to force their ideas about how communities should work on the people who had built those communities in the first place. I believed right would prevail as people followed their own consciences."
The people who built a racially rigid world, in other words, had every right to maintain that rigidity. Hell, they even gave a ham to their house cleaners at Christmas time. The glacier of racial intolerance and racial separation would not have moved one inch, in other words, if Jesse Helms had had his way.
But I will give him this: he activated me and whole generations of others, in Harvey Gantt's challenge during the 1990 election campaign. I worked tirelessly to defeat Helms in that year, and we carried Watauga County for Gantt -- a (gasp!) black man -- by a cool 1,000 votes, pushing against a tide of racism in our own party leadership at that time (speaking of "voluntary" consciences!). Jesse Helms did give us that -- a revived local Democratic Party. Amazing how an inflammatory boil on the rump of the Old North State could infuse new health into wannabe boil-lancers.
Watauga was only one of three mountain counties that Gantt carried in 1990 (Jackson and Buncombe were the other two). That was the first of several electoral shocks that followed in Watauga County through the 1990s, the first signal on the local scene that the old South Democratic party was changing and that this mountain county, at least, had a strong current of progressive politics moving inexorably through its bloodstream.