My first encounter with Jesse Helms came in the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity room at Duke University in 1966. That was the site of the closest television to my room, and Jesse Helms came on every weekday evening for a live commentary on Raleigh station WRAL.
"Listen to this guy if you have any question about what a redneck area this is," advised my friends. When Jesse sought corroboration for his reactionary thoughts he called "Cousin Chub" Seawell into the studio. Seawell's folksiness was more entertaining than Helms' often bitter diatribes, but the message came out pretty much the same. We watched them assail everything we believed in.
Sometimes we laughed; sometimes we became infuriated. Always we looked down on them. We derided them as they derided us. Never did we take them seriously, except as examples of the narrow backwardness that summoned us to become liberal instruments of enlightenment.
I was a senior when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Roughly 2,000 of us joined a vigil on the quad for several days. The vigil was an instrument of our grieving and a voice for racial justice on Duke's campus. Higher wages and union recognition for the non-academic employees—cooks, food-servers, maids, and janitors, most of whom were black—became the focal issue. We sat peacefully and largely silent day and night, studying for finals, listening to Dr. King's speeches and singing "We Shall Overcome" every hour. To this day I count it as a major event in my spiritual formation.
Jesse Helms came on the television and said that all of the students sitting on the quad at Duke should ask their parents if it would be all right for their son or daughter to "marry a Negro" (Duke students were practically all white in those days). Unless the student's parents approved of that prospect, Helms advised, he or she should go back to class. We all took the words as vindication for our cause.