As Congress adjourned in mid-October, Jesse Helms returned to the campaign circuit in North Carolina, having made an intriguing about-face in strategy. On a foray into the Piedmont the senator took with him two prominent, nationally known blacks: Roosevelt ("Rosey") Grier, the former Los Angeles Rams lineman and friend of the late Robert Kennedy, and Bill Keyes, a former Reagan White House adviser, now head of Black PAC, an organization attempting to win black supporters for conservative candidates.
Helms explained that he "hadn't done anything to communicate one on one" with blacks during his twelve-year senatorial career, except those he knew personally in Raleigh and Washington. "I think after the election maybe I ought to do a little better. I ought to make an effort to communicate more--not for political purposes but so we can have an understanding about what brotherhood is and about what sound economics are and that sort of thing."
Grier, the tall, beefy athlete who had wrestled Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, to the floor in Los Angeles and had since turned to religious revivalism, was an enthusiastic campaigner. "I believe this man Jesse Helms is a great American. . . . He's my brother," he said. Keyes noted that Black PAC was pushing candidates who "favor traditional moral values" and said he was not "bothered" by Helms's past hostility to civil rights legislation. He had known Helms for six years, he said, and "found him to be a very caring person."
At his first public appearance with Grier and Keyes, in Greensboro, Helms was also accompanied by three Republican senators--Chic Hecht of Nevada, John Chafee of Rhode Island, and Robert Kasten of Wisconsin. But for his trip the next day to small, predominantly black Livingstone College (750 students), in Salisbury, the senator had with him only the two out-of-state black visitors and his press secretary, Claude Allen, also black. Helms had been invited to speak on the colleges lecture series, and when he showed up, he was greeted by some one hundred silent black students locked together arm-in-arm outside Varick Auditorium. Helms extended his right hand to one of the students, but the youth refused to shake hands. Helms moved on, saying "Just the same, I love you." Asked by reporters why he refused to shake hands, the student said: "Why should I put my hand in the dirt?"