It’s hard to think about white supremacy and the public policies it helped drive during the second half of the 20th Century in North Carolina without arriving at the subject of longtime U.S. Senator Jesse Helms. Helms was a divisive figure who fought against civil rights legislation, opposed the establishment of a holiday to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and infamously made use of racist imagery in a television ad to help defeat Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt in the 1990 Senate election.
Helms was a conundrum in many ways. Throughout his tenure in Washington, he was lauded by people of varying views as a courteous man whose staff did great work for constituents. And yet, in many other ways, his beliefs and actions were those of an irresponsible bigot.
In 1993, after battling with her over issues related to the Confederate flag, Helms entered an elevator in which the Senate’s only Black member, Carol Mosely Braun of Illinois, was standing and started singing the words to the song “Dixie.” He then, according to Mosely Braun, told Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah that he was going to keep singing it until he made her cry.
In another dark chapter in his record, Helms crusaded against equality for LGBTQ Americans, and even went so far as to stand in the way of funding for AIDS services and research and repeatedly referring to gay people as “perverted.”
Now, happily, it appears that reflections upon Helms’ stances and behavior are leading caring and thinking people to take action to relegate some remembrances of him to the trash can of white supremacist history.
The latest such example comes from Chowan University in the northeastern part of North Carolina. According to the Daily Advance in Elizabeth City and Raleigh’s News & Observer, the school has removed Helms’ name from its athletic facility. (Click here to see an old image from the university’s website of the facility.) This is from the N&O:
“The building at Chowan University, a small Christian school in the town of Murfreesboro, was constructed in 1977 and named Helms Center after the late, longtime North Carolina senator known for his stark opposition to civil rights in the United States. But he was recently replaced as its namesake.
Hawks are the school’s mascot.
‘The new name of the athletic center is in recognition that the building has had significant renovations in recent years, and is a central building for our Hawks competition,’ the Facebook post read.
The decision came after ‘recent events’ brought to light concerns from members of the campus community that the name was a ‘symbol of hate,’ the school said in June.
The move appears to have been spurred in part by a letter from the university’s history department faculty that decried “the institutional racism Senator Helms embodied.”
Let’s hope it’s just the latest in a long string of such actions to remove celebratory remembrances of those who stood in the way of equality in our state.