Personal Reminiscence: North Carolina and Jesse Helms [Hunterbear]

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at
Wed Aug 7 12:29:15 MDT 2002

Note by Hunterbear:

I wrote this piece about a year ago -- when Jesse Helms announced his
retirement. It proved to be one of the most popular pieces that I've
recently done and, from time to time, there've been requests that I repost
it.  Now that Jesse is on the final stretch of the Sunset Trail, I'm again
running this -- especially for the benefit of those who never saw it
initially.  It's published on our large Lair of Hunterbear website at  along with much related


The departure of Jesse Helms [hopefully forever] from the national political
scene is a vastly pleasant and encouraging development -- much, much more
than, say,  even the fading  of an especially  cruel winter in the Northern
Plains or rain in Death Valley.

I met him directly only once -- a long, long time ago.  More on that in a
few moments.

Helms comes from Monroe -- Union County -- North Carolina.  Even into
historically recent times,  the racism  of this place was among the worst in
the South [today, it's becoming a suburb of Charlotte -- but I suspect even
a thin scratch would produce the heavy and oppressive odor of contemporary,
essentially unyielding racism.]  This was the setting where, in the late
'50s and just into the '60s,  Black leader Rob Williams, a World War II vet
and then president of the local NAACP,  and  with other very courageous
souls, conducted a series of hard-fought desegregation campaigns at Monroe.
The Black community in that hate-filled town was violently attacked  at
different points by increasingly heavy Klan forces -- and Williams, with an
NRA charter, organized an armed self-defense group.  Condemned increasingly
by the North Carolina state government, he also wound up on the "hate-list"
of the FBI because of his strong support of the Cuban Revolution.  In 1961,
a massive, armed Klan attack was directed against the Black community of
Monroe which climaxed at night.  Rob Williams called the office of North
Carolina governor, Terry Sanford, to demand state protection -- but was told
pleasantly by Sanford's assistant, "I would have thought you'd be swinging
from that big tree in the Monroe courthouse yard by this time, Rob."

In the chaos of that final terrible late afternoon and night, Williams and
his people took into protective custody  a white couple that, either with
malice or accidentally, had gone  "behind the lines" in the Black community.
Although the white couple was released quite unharmed a few hours later,
Williams and others were charged with kidnapping -- and, though he was able
to make his getaway to Cuba, others were caught. They came to trial in
February, 1964 at Monroe.

In those rich and turbulent days, I was Field Organizer for the radical
Southern Conference Educational Fund [SCEF],  and based at Raleigh, NC,
working across the Deep South in grassroots civil rights organizing and
anti-Klan work.  I was also a very publicly listed  and active supporter of
the Committee to Aid the Monroe Defendants [CAMD] -- headed by the excellent
Berta Green [a Trotskyist] and George Weissman and others. The  principal
lawyer for my group, SCEF,  was Bill Kunstler who was also one of the
attorneys for the Monroe victims. I got into Monroe for the trial in the
early evening before, noting the huge lighted [Christian?] cross on the hill
above, and stopped for gas at what we rather callously used to refer to in
those days as a "cracker nest."

A young white man handled the gas and, when that was completed, I asked him
directions to a particular address -- which was that of the home of the
embattled Dr Albert Perry, a civil rights stalwart where Berta and the
others were staying.  He looked at me with great distaste.  "Why that's Coon
Town," and he spit it out.  "Just tell me where it is, " I said.   He
gestured vaguely and backed away.

At Dr Perry's home,  the CAMD leaders were gathered -- enmeshed in an
extremely difficult crisis.  The "other" defense committee, the Monroe
Defense Committee [MDC] [ Workers World], was also of course, at that
moment, in Monroe.  Relationships between the two groups and their followers
were extremely hostile.  There had been altercations.  The prospect of going
into a major legal defense trial in such a divisive context -- a  trial that
was drawing considerable national and international attention -- was clearly
very bad business for everyone on our general side.  Since I was very much
of the ecumenical Left, I immediately offered to go to the local
headquarters of the Monroe Defense Committee to see if a pragmatic armistice
could be arranged.  I did and, ushered in by heavily armed guards, met the
very charming Mrs Clarence Senior, who with her husband, spearheaded the
MDC.  I had no sooner introduced myself when she warmed very visibly,  with
a huge smile. "Professor Salter of Tougaloo College," she said, "I know all
about you!"  Very soon,  and congenially, we had agreement on treaty
basics -- and, with only a few more back and forth  middle-of-the-night
trips [Berta et al. and CAMD were as agreeable as Mrs Senior and MDC], we
had full agreement on joint cooperation in all key areas -- including media
presentations and statements.

The trial, as massive a perversion of justice as I've ever seen anywhere,
took place in this absolutely hate-filled town of Monroe [the Helms'
home-town], saturated with obvious [if ungarbed] Ku Kluxers, a raft of
Federal and state finks, and newspersons from the four corners of the globe.
A blatantly stacked-deck -- a completely unabashed one from the outset --
the "trial" ran its obviously racist course -- presided over by an openly "
hanging judge" type flanked by a gaggle of heavily armed deputies. The
Monroe victim defendants were, of course, convicted -- and appealed -- and
eventually were finally freed.

One of the most conspicuous regional media outfits in Monroe for this
nefarious affair was the  racist television station from Raleigh in which
Jesse Helms was the major fixture -- WRAL-TV.  It also always played a
conspicuously prolonged rendition of "Dixie" each night before  its merciful

About a year later, I was -- as I had been for some many, many months --
directing a major, intensive and increasingly successful civil rights, voter
registration, and anti-Klan campaign in the extremely racist,
rigidly-segregated,  poverty-stricken, Klan-infested  multi-county
Northeastern North Carolina Blackbelt.  This region,  although predominately
Black , also had a substantial and equally victimized Native American
population which was deeply involved in our Movement.  Our  campaign was, in
the face of virulently racist opposition -- e.g.,  antagonistic and
viciously resistant voter registrars, widespread economic reprisals, open
violence from police and Klan-types [and with hostile state agents from the
NC State Bureau of Investigation and equally hostile FBI finks hovering in
the shadows]  organizing the grassroots, county by county, and generating
extremely capable local leadership.  Excellent lawyers [Bill Kunstler, Morty
Stavis, Phil Hirschkop]
were major and critical assets.

As all of this burgeoned along, WRAL-TV and Jesse Helms at Raleigh were
among our shrillest and most hostile media critics.  And then, at one point,
in that Spring of '65, Jesse Helms, in a news cast, levied an especially
venomous Red-baiting blast against me and our Blackbelt project: 2 minutes
and 18 seconds of it.  But, in his fervor, he'd overstepped -- and the
upshot was that I got "equal time."  Seeing no point in responding to his
Red charges, I put together, instead, a necessarily trenchant statement
which discussed the hideous nature of the North Carolina Blackbelt setting
and its power structure,  also attacked  the United Klans of America, and
called for a strong Federal voting rights act [then in the Congressional
hopper.]  My statement, which I refined and honed and read to my patient,
watch-holding wife at least 15 times, fell neatly into the 2 minutes, 18
seconds context.

When the day came, I went to WRAL, on the outskirts of Raleigh.  Entering
the station, I noted the delegation of several somber-faced white men
approaching me -- led by a black-suited entity which I realized was Jesse
Helms.  We faced each other, staring, for a very long moment indeed.  He saw
whatever he saw in me -- and I saw a pudgy, rather heavy-faced man, wearing
glasses behind which his quite conspicuous eyes blinked rapidly.  He was
sweating. Then he stuck out his hand, with the coldest formality I've ever
encountered, and I took it -- and we, very perfunctorily, shook hands.  "Are
you ready?" he asked me.  "I am," said I.  "Quite ready indeed."  As though
we were en route to the ultimate manifestation of The Code Duello under the
Southern pines, we walked, he and I together, and followed by his
colleagues, up a stairway, to a broadcasting room.

There, with Jesse Helms sweating even more profusely, I took out my written
statement. Still staring, he told me, "You have two minutes and eighteen
seconds, son."  Ignoring that, I nodded.  The lights were fixed hard and
heatedly upon me and I could sense Jesse Helms' cold and distasteful stare
from behind.  I read my statement, briskly and clearly,  and I got it all
in: the awful nature of the Blackbelt and its power structure, the
intimidation and violence, the Klan -- and the need for a very strong
Federal voting rights act.

When it was over, after 2 minutes and 18 seconds, we walked back
downstairs -- followed by his colleagues.  Obviously angry and with his face
still sweating profusely and his eyes big and cold, Jesse Helms looked at me
and I at him.  Without saying a word, he stuck out his hand again and I took
it and we shook -- this time, very very perfunctorily.  He and his group
turned and stalked away.  The next day, back up in the Blackbelt, I was
asked by my  very good friends and civil rights colleagues, Reed and Willa
[Cofield] Johnson of Enfield -- another hate-filled little bastion -- just
what it was like to shake hands with Jesse Helms.

I thought for a long moment.  "It was like shaking hands with a toad's
belly," said I.  And I still hold, to this very day, to that very accurate
descriptive analysis of that  absolutely weird and surrealistic experience.

Our Northeastern Blackbelt project rolled on to many, many successes. In
time, I went on to many other organizing campaigns. And Jesse Helms went to
the U.S. Senate where his Never Never Potions and Malevolent Witch-Craft
have poured rank poison into our national culture and the long-suffering
world scene for a very, very long and tragic time.

In the Spring of 1996, I was chairing, as a recently retired University of
North Dakota professor, a panel on  Native American challenges in education
and related dimensions at Indian Time Out Week, held by the Native students
at UND.  One panel participant, a well-known Native educator and old friend
from a bit further west, had just returned to the Northern Plains from a
trip to Washington to which he'd gone seeking funds for his Native community
college.  When he finished his presentation, he said, "Have kind of an
interesting story."  It developed that our friend and colleague, somewhere
along the puddle-jumping plane trip to the Twin Cities, had found himself
sitting next to -- Jesse Helms!  As he briefly described Helms, black suit
and sweat, I remembered my long-ago meeting with the Entity from Monroe.
With  our  naturally uneasy friend, Helms had tried to say how much he
admired Indian people but it fell 'way short, tumbling out of sight into a
Grand Canyon of  obvious,syrupy hypocrisy.  They left that plane, Helms
following our colleague.

"Did he stick out his hand when you parted?" I asked.  "He did," said  our
friend. "And we shook hands, though it seemed strange."

"Well," said I, "he does know the amenities."  And then, of course, I told
the tale that I've just told you-all, the readers.

In Solidarity -

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]  [formerly, John Salter, Jr.]

Hunter Gray

Hunter Gray  [Hunterbear]  Micmac/St Francis Abenaki/St Regis Mohawk (strawberry socialism)
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