Would Jesse Helms finally embrace Nelson Mandela now?

Dec. 11, 2013 @ 09:57 PM

If Nelson Mandela approached Jesse Helms in heaven and extended his hand in friendship, would Helms accept it?

If so, then heaven truly is a better place.

In life, Helms turned his back on Mandela -- first figuratively, then physically.

The Republican senator from North Carolina fought against U.S. economic sanctions on the apartheid South African regime in 1985 and 1986. He also refused to support American demands for Mandela's release from prison.

Helms branded Mandela a communist and warned that if the white government in South Africa was replaced by African National Congress rule, Soviet control was the next step.

The senator apparently didn't soften his view even after Mandela's election as president in 1994. When the South African visited Congress, Helms reportedly turned his back.

Of course, Helms was hardly alone in misjudging Mandela -- who did not turn his country over to the Soviets. In fact, the Soviet Union itself collapsed as apartheid was being dismantled. Both repressive regimes were gathered into the dust bin of history at about the same time. It's ironic Helms was a bitter enemy of one regime and an apologist for the other.

Why? Chris Kromm of the Institute for Southern Studies draws a parallel to Helms' animosity toward the civil rights movement and its leaders, particularly the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he also tagged as a communist. The common ingredient was race. In both instances, Helms sided with the white power structure over the black underclass battling for equal treatment. It's a sad but plausible possibility that Helms' perceptions were colored by race.

Remarkably, Helms appeared to ignore, overlook or disbelieve the amazing Christian attitudes shown by both King and Mandela. Neither man looked forward to someday turning the tables on his opponents and seeking retribution. Rather, they hoped for a day when all people could live together as brothers and sisters.

King didn't live long enough to see his goals fulfilled, but Mandela did achieve power and actually held true to his ideals. He demonstrated the strength of forgiveness and reconciliation. He repaid those who imprisoned him not with hatred but with an opportunity to begin again.

Helms, himself a devout Christian, was capable of personal charity and kindness. He was forthright, honest and, in his way, principled. Those virtues distinguished him from politicians who regularly compromised their principles, if they had any, for short-term advantage. Helms was given credit for this trait even by people who disagreed with his views.

At the same time, holding firm to bad ideas is hardly creditable.

Where Helms often went wrong was in his lack of vision. He could not see the trend line of history when it came to civil rights in our country and the struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa.

While he was right to support anti-Soviet dissidents in Moscow or the destruction of the Berlin Wall, he could not sympathize with black Americans facing police brutality in Alabama or Nelson Mandela suffering for the cause of freedom in a cold prison cell on Robben Island.

Where Helms should have taken the long view, he had a blind spot. Where he should have recognized the human desire for liberty, he saw threats to an acceptable status quo. From Helms' perspective as a child of the mid-20th century South, the superior relationship of whites to blacks maintained the right social order. From his perspective as an anti-communist, Cold War-era American politician, the South African government merited support as long as it remained a U.S. ally and resisted Soviet designs.

A leader with better vision would have perceived the opportunities in both countries to promote justice and create new and better societies. Helms couldn't.

Fortunately for South Africa, the Mandela who came to power in 1994 did not hold grudges. Instead, he had the foresight to understand that his country's future -- though beset with countless challenges -- depended on its ability to set aside grievances, seek reconciliation and move forward with respect for all its citizens.

I have no idea what, if anything, Mandela knew about or thought of Helms. But it would be in character for him, I think, to extend his hand in friendship to Helms if they met in heaven.

Of course, in heaven, Helms would not turn his back.

He must regret, then, that in life he didn't see the end of the story.

As we conduct our own lives, we all should try to take the long view.