The late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina conservative known for opposing civil rights, was the subject of repeated threats during his tenure on Capitol Hill, according to newly released FBI files.
More than 90 percent of the pages in the files detail threats – from a student discussion overheard in a physics lab to a fully loaded .357 Magnum smuggled into a Senate hearing.
The 1,587 pages of documents also demonstrate the close relationship Helms developed with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. While working as a media executive before he joined Congress, Helms was deemed a “special correspondent” with increased access to the nation’s leading law enforcement agency. The file includes an appreciative note from a subsequent FBI director for Helms’ role in quashing an indictment against one of its agents.
The documents — while only a portion of Helms’ complete FBI dossier — cover almost 30 years of his public life, and reflect the qualities and contentions for which the late senator is best remembered.
The documents were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. A FOIA request about an individual obligates the federal agency in question to release non-classified documents to the public once the person has died.
After a several-year struggle with vascular dementia, Helms died in Raleigh, N.C. on July 4, 2008 at age 87.
One of the founding members of the modern conservative movement, Helms was known for his vigorous religious faith and his tenacious views on small government. Although his polarizing style often limited his popular appeal and his law-making ability, Helms’ support for politicians like Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Dole helped catapult them into the national spotlight.
Helms battled the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Clean Indoor Air Act. He proposed constitutional amendments to overturn Roe v. Wade and strongly supported the tobacco industry. He voted consistently against Israel’s interests. He attempted to stanch funding for “gay-oriented artwork” and AIDS research.
One of Helms’ most famous battles — involving a 16-day filibuster — was his fight to block legislation establishing a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1983. He requested sealed FBI surveillance material allegedly containing King’s adulterous indiscretions. The U.S. District Court ruled against Helms, finding their involvement would constitute an “obvious intrusion by the judiciary into the legislative arena.”
Threats From All Over
The range of threats in the FBI files point to the broad swath of grievances aired against Helms. Some were perplexing: a single aspirin (verified as such by the FBI’s labs) accompanied by a note saying “Free Extra-Strength Aspirin.” Others were pointed: “That clean indoor act better pass for non smokers or we will kill you.” Many of the threats originated in his home state and a good portion of them concerned his record on race issues.
Among the threats:
• The Tri-County News, then in Spruce Pine, N.C., reported receipt of a handwritten letter from Buffalo, N.Y, dated April 6, 1981, which referred to the assassination attempt on President Reagan the week before. The author alluded to Helms as the jester to Reagan’s king, “making the movie actor happy to inflict sorry [sic] and suffering on the poor – Jester Jesse should watch his step & mouth.”
• An anonymous phone call was received at WLFL, Channel 22, in Durham, N.C., on Nov. 7, 1984 “from what sounded like to be a black female caller,” the FBI file noted. “The caller appeared to be middle aged, spoke very distinctly, and appeared to have been educated.” The caller reportedly said, “I will kill Senator Helms and blow all of his brains over his car.”
• On Aug. 5, 1985, a summer intern at WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., picked up a call described as being from “a black male with a Jamaican or Caribbean accent.” The caller identified Helms as one of “the chief racist supporters of apartheid.” He demanded the end of apartheid in South Africa by the coming Sunday, or he would fight “apartheid in America by tainting foods in Safeway and Giant food stores and salad bars in Pizza Huts across America.”
•An anonymous postcard dated Dec. 5, 1985 and postmarked Punta Gorda, Fla. was received at Helms’ Senate offices. The postcard read: “Dear Senator Helms: Please do schedule yourself for a speaking tour of south west Florida… I would like to put a 30-cal. bullet in your fat head. Very Truly, A.R. Annoyed Republican.”
• On March 1, 1990, the “Homosexual Resistance Unit” called WCBS Radio in New York, targeting Helms, among others, stating that “the bombs were already in the mail.”
A Long History With The FBI
Helms was on the FBI’s radar before he became a senator, working variously as a journalist, political aide and radio and TV media executive.
The FBI records show that on September 7, 1971, the Charlotte FBI office’s special agent in charge recommended Helms as a contact because “Mr. Helms is most cooperative and has offered the facilities of his station to assist the FBI at any time.” He was also placed on the “special correspondents list,” but was deleted as a contact upon being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972.
Switching from Democrat to Republican, Helms replaced three-term incumbent B. Everett Jordan (D-N.C.).
Upon the death of Helms’ father in February 1974, then-FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley sent condolences. In August 1977, Kelley thanked the senator for helping quash an indictment against Special Agent John J. Kearney. The U.S. Department of Justice charged Kearney with operating a mail opening and wiretap operation against the so-called Weatherman domestic terrorist group between 1970 and 1972.
In August 1976, the director of food service for the U.S. Senate told the FBI that Helms’ office paid cash to rent a room with food and refreshments. The day after the function, he said Helms’ office called to alert him that The New York Times had attended the event and was claiming that it was a fund-raising affair. An article titled “Helms Holds Fund-raiser in his Hill Office” was published on August 26, 1976 by the Washington Star. Helms’ office admitted the error and the case was closed by early the next year.
In 1986, Helms turned his ire on the FBI. He questioned if the FBI was involved in gathering possibly illegal surveillance during his visit to Chile as a guest of the Agricultural Society of Chile and subsequently leaking “ostensibly classified information” to the media.
In 1989, two Wall Street Journal articles about a Marxist terrorist organization caught his eye. He circumvented regular channels to ask then-FBI Director William Sessions questions about the group.
Helms’ tough tactics and uncompromising style generated staunch converts – both for and against him. He rarely got any of his own legislation passed and never won office with a significant majority. The Raleigh News and Observer nicknamed him “Senator No.”
But as rigid as Helms appeared, he still surprised people with his pivots on some issues.
The Equal Rights Amendment foe ushered Elizabeth Dole into his Senate seat when he retired in 2002. He eventually softened his stance on Israel. In the last few years of his life, Helms worked with U2 singer Bono to fight the spread of AIDS.
In the months to come, the FBI will continue to release portions of Helms’ huge file.