The Infamous 1981 Lee Atwater Interview School for Government at Liberty University

The Infamous 1981 Lee Atwater Interview School for Government at Liberty University October 20, 2023

Liberty University welcomes former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as Distinguished Chair of the Helms School of Government!” the school announced on Xitter. The astonishing cumulative effect of the proper nouns in that sentence is so alarming that I’ll concede the exclamation point is appropriate.

You’re probably wondering about that “Helms School of Government” at Liberty. Surely that must be named after some other “Helms”?

But it’s not. Liberty University’s school of government is named in honor of Sen. Jesse Helms, one of the most infamously despicable segregationists of the late 20th century. Liberty’s website says:

Prepare to be a leader in your chosen field and join what our school’s namesake, Senator Jesse Helms, termed, “The war for truth and freedom.” Helms was an influential leader in the rise of today’s conservative movement and promoted traditional values.

Jesse Helms was a racist. That was his profession throughout his long life. It was his vocation and his calling — what he did and why he did it. As David Broder — the embodiment of establishment both-sides punditry — wrote when Helms announced his retirement from the Senate in 2001: “What really set Jesse Helms apart is that he was the last prominent, unabashedly white racist politician in this country.” [Ed. note: Not the last.]

From Liberty’s website

Helms started out in the newspaper biz, then began to work as a campaign adviser — always for aggressively segregationist candidates for whom Helms crafted slogans like “Wake Up, White People.” That got him a gig as the top lobbyist for the state banking industry, helping to ensure that North Carolina’s bankers could continue to “promote traditional values” such as redlining, segregation, and ensuring that access to capital for business and housing was available only to those “traditionally” blessed to enjoy it.

Helms’ political and banking connections led to his next career as a TV news commentator providing daily editorials on the local news station in Raleigh. Helms’ editorials were racist. That is not to say that he sometimes crossed the line or occasionally said something problematic. His editorials were determinedly racist, designed and intended to be so. News broadcasts on WRAL ended with Jesse Helms spending five minutes railing against the Civil Rights Movement and the debauched liberalism that made it possible. Twice a day, every day. Same time, same channel. It was like vespers for white racists in 1960s North Carolina.

For a taste of the “conservative … traditional values” Helms advocated, here’s what he said in his editorial about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: “The negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that’s thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men’s rights.” If that sounds to you like a veiled threat, I’d point out that it wasn’t terribly well veiled.

For Helms, “conservative” was not an ideology or an inclination. Nor was it a principled stance based on “values.” It was a useful tool for the pursuit of his overarching goal of segregation and white supremacy. When he thundered against Communism he wasn’t talking about Khruschev, but about Martin Luther King Jr. and the “outside agitators” he claimed were ruining the up-until-then blissful state of race relations in North Carolina. When he spoke of “small government” it was always about keeping the feds from enforcing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments in the state.

After he was elected to the Senate in 1972, Jesse Helms became the most transparent practitioner of what Lee Atwater candidly described in that “Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy.” Everything you need to know about Helms’ 30 years as a senator is summarized by Atwater here:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—-r, n—-r, n—-r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n—-r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—-r, n—-r.”

By choosing to name their school for government after Helms, Liberty University is endorsing all of that — admitting, and even flat-out bragging, that everything they’re packaging as “today’s conservative movement” and “traditional values” is just a euphemism for saying “N—-r, n—-r, n—-r.” They may as well have simply named it The Infamous 1981 Lee Atwater Interview School for Government” and carved that entire quote in granite on the side of a campus building.

I’m sure the folks at Liberty would say they chose to honor, of all people, Jesse Helms because of his “staunch” support for criminalizing abortion and jailing everybody who scores above zero on the Kinsey Scale. But U.S. Senator Jesse Helms in 1993 was the same angry segregationist as the Jesse Helms of WRAL editorials in 1963. Liberty seems to realize this, too, which is why they chose that Portrait of the Racist as a Young Man up top for the website of their school of government.

This is where the culture wars come from and this is what they always mean. The sides haven’t changed, only the euphemisms, pretexts, and proxy wedge issues that still mean exactly what they meant in 1954.

 

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