Jesse Helms's Politics of Pious Incitement: Race, Conservatism, and Southern Realignment in the 1950s

By Thrift, Bryan Hardin | The Journal of Southern History, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Jesse Helms's Politics of Pious Incitement: Race, Conservatism, and Southern Realignment in the 1950s


Thrift, Bryan Hardin, The Journal of Southern History


IN THE SOUTH, A REGION WHERE CULTURAL AND RACIAL CONSERVATISM coexisted with loyalty to the Democratic Party and wide support for liberal economic policies, Jesse Helms became a pivotal figure in constructing the new conservatism of the 1950s and 1960s. Before his thirty-second birthday, Helms, a native of North Carolina, was an award-winning newspaper reporter, city editor of the Raleigh Times, news director for Raleigh radio station WRAL, administrative assistant to Senator Willis Smith, and campaign worker for conservative candidates, including media adviser to Senator Richard B. Russell Jr.'s run for the 1952 Democratic presidential nomination. In 1953 Helms left Washington, D.C., to serve as executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association (NCBA) and edit its magazine, the Tarheel Banker. Helms differed from typical southern conservatives of the fifties. Out of his Washington experience a young Helms developed a national vision for conservative power. He not only recognized that southern Democrats had more in common with western and midwestern Republicans--like Richard M. Nixon or Joseph R. McCarthy--than with liberal Democrats, but he also wanted to build a national conservative party.

Although Helms's critics have often painted him as a fringe figure, such depictions represent wishful thinking rather than a serious appraisal of his influence. True, Helms--a polished, well-connected extremist in a banker's suit--expressed views labeled fringe during the postwar decades. He believed the liberal consensus was shallow, mainly an elite phenomenon. Many average voters shared his views. The problem was to determine how, with a moderate to liberal media, conservatives could reach these voters. He found solutions. By the 1970s, no one could doubt Helms's centrality to the conservative movement. He signed a fund-raising letter for the Moral Majority, and the money streamed in. His North Carolina Congressional Club (later renamed the National Congressional Club) supplied Ronald Reagan with money and ideas during his 1976 and 1980 campaigns. In My Life, Bill Clinton charged that Helms was behind Kenneth Starr's appointment as a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton's activities. (1) Helms's influence in recent decades had deep roots. During the riffles, Helms began the work that made the fringe mainstream. He altered southern conservatism to make it acceptable outside the South, pushed for a national conservative party, and developed ways of communicating with common people--not only rural voters but also new suburbanites. Most of all, Helms nurtured the issues like opposition to desegregation that pushed southern whites toward the GOP.

Since President Ronald Reagan's victories in the 1980s, historians have investigated the rise of the New Right. Dan T. Carter and Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall posit a top-down model with presidential candidates Richard Nixon and Alabama governor George C. Wallace leading the way. In Carter's view, Wallace's national campaigns exported Deep South politics to the rest of the country; Nixon's southern strategy simply stole the Alabama governor's fire. Carter depicts Wallace as a rock-star politician whose tour forged a new conservative majority. (2) In this standard narrative, the Wallace and Nixon campaigns molded a cross-class white constituency for conservatism that depended on racial anxiety, hostility to the cultural elite, anticommunism, and rejection of big government. This meant not only a new conservatism but also a southernization of American public life. More recently, Matthew D. Lassiter's The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South and Kevin M. Kruse's White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism have challenged this top-down, out-of-the-Deep-South version of southernization. Lassiter and Kruse also complicate southern class relationships, demonstrating that rather than unifying whites, integration debates exacerbated class conflict. …

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