by Scoobie Davis
Must ReadMichael Lind
on why Jesse Helms is not dead:
Where Jesse Helms came from was the Third World, the American South between World War I and the civil rights revolution. In the generation before Helms was born the son of a police chief in 1921, the Southern oligarchy had been terrified by Populism. The greatest threat to the white elite was the revolt of white workers and farmers. To forestall that possibility, the Southern state governments, in the decade before World War I, used literacy tests, poll taxes and other measures to eliminate not only all blacks but half of the white Southern population from the electorate. In the election of 1936, voter turnout in Georgia was 16.1 percent, 13 percent in Mississippi, and only 10.7 percent in South Carolina. (It was higher, 42.7 percent, in Helms' North Carolina, where populists had abolished the poll tax.)
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Having crushed the Republican and Populist parties, the oligarchs imposed a one-party dictatorship on the region, with secret state surveillance units and occasional collaboration between the police and the Ku Klux Klan. In its economy, the South was a banana republic, a commodity-exporting resource colony in which a "comprador bourgeoisie" of local landowners and local businessmen collaborated with investors in New York and elsewhere in fleecing the region.
To serve their interests, the old latifundist families and corporate elites hired "Dixie demagogues," who were to genuine populists like William Jennings Bryan what a Disney pirate is to a pirate. All of them were entertaining. Some began as entertainers, like musician-slash-flour miller W. Lee "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel, who went from hosting the "Hillbilly Flour" radio show to the Texas governor's mansion in 1939. The "Dixie demagogues" denounced various supposed enemies of the white tribe, but with two exceptions--Huey Long and George Wallace -- they never threatened the rule of the country clubs and courthouse gangs. Jesse Helms was one of these theatrical quasi-populists, an uncomplicated establishment conservative who parlayed a liberal-baiting radio show into a political career. Like other faux-homespun Southern conservatives, he employed rhetorical populism against blacks, homosexuals, liberals, professors, modern artists and "common-ists" in the service of his business backers, most noticeably North Carolina's tobacco industry.