Jesse Helms is ashamed about something? Lawd almighty, maybe there is hope for us all. Well, as long as he's apologizing for the way he blew off the AIDS epidemic, maybe he'll also stop and think about his environmental record. (In 2001, he "laid a goose egg for the sixth year in a row" the Conservation Council of North Carolina's said the other day. It's pretty shameful, too, given the sorry state of air and water quality around here.)
Maybe he'll say he's sorry he fought against Medicare, tried to privatize Social Security, said Food Stamps should be abolished, and opposed just about every other social program enacted since he himself enjoyed the benefits of the G.I. Bill after World War II. (Tobacco quotas were always the exception, of course.)
But let's be kind. Sen. Helms could be forgiven a lot if he would only say that, in addition to AIDS, he is very sorry and most repentant over civil rights.
Starting 50 years ago when he was a campaigner for (and later legislative assistant to) Sen. Willis Smith, Helms forged an absolutely consistent record of never lifting a finger against racial segregation, legal or customary. He called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 "the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress," called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a communist and said the civil rights movement "has had an uncommon number of moral degenerates leading the parade." He fought the King holiday, affirmative action in every form, even money for a museum to commemorate the history of black Americans.
Helms always stood for property rights, not civil rights, and for a man's right to shut off his lunch counter or his motel rooms to anyone he didn't like--"public accommodations" be darned. "The right to own, manage and secure property is not merely the most sacred of human rights," he said in 1968, "it is the very basis of civilization."
Certainly Helms didn't mean that. As an avowed Christian, he surely meant to say that property rights are important, but the first commandment is to love thy neighbor as thyself, regardless of her color or sexual orientation, for that matter.
But if Helms has ever apologized for defending segregation, fighting civil rights and opposing the progress of African Americans in the South at every turn, he hasn't done it publicly in the way he apologized about AIDS.
Just in the last decade, he's whistled "Dixie" to then-Sen. Carol Mosley Braun (D-Illinois), in an elevator; said that "race relations in North Carolina are excellent," and a couple of years ago told a UNC-TV interviewer that the civil rights movement itself was "unnecessary."
Helms can't possibly have meant that either. Now that he's stopped bashing his enemies and started reassessing the incredible things he's said and done--and not done--in his life, it's time he owned up to his failures on civil rights too.