Jesse Helms, the former Senator from North Carolina, passed away yesterday at the age of 86. Many in the conservative community are drawing attention to the fact that this “patriot” died on the Fourth of July. Perhaps they mistakenly believe that by focusing on the date of his death, we will overlook the contents of his life.

The only kind thing I can say about Helms, is that at least he never hid his beliefs. You knew exactly what you were getting with him, be it racist, xenophobic or homophobic. He knew there were pockets of America that hated him, and he reveled in that knowledge. “If you want to call me a bigot, fine,” he said.

Of course I want to call him a bigot. This man spent his early career opposing the Civil Rights Movement and once responded to a Duke University vigil for Martin Luther King, Jr. after his assassination by stating, “They should ask their parents if it would be all right for their son or daughter to marry a Negro.”

As time went on, and he lost his battle to keep the races separate and entirely unequal, he found a new group of scapegoats. “Homosexuals,” he stated in a 1995 radio broadcast, “are weak, morally sick wretches.”

And for much of the last decade or so of his career, Helms focused his vitriol on gays. (Or should I say, “on homosexuals”? After all, Helms refused to refer to homosexuals as gays, stating, “I despise the use of the once beautiful word ‘gay.’ They are not gay; they are repulsive.”) Though he was particularly riled up on the topic of AIDS funding (and once suggested a quarantine was necessary for all HIV positive individuals), he was also quick to anger whenever an openly gay individual was nominated for a position that required Congressional approval or at any suggestion that gay Americans deserved equal rights and protection under the law. In response to the U.S. Postal Service’s plan to commemorate the Stonewall rebellion with a special postmark, Helm’s stood on the Senate floor and said, “The homosexuals are in a battle against American values. Their ultimate aim is to have the American people accept the proposition that their perverted lifestyle is as worthy of protection as race, creed and religion. I do not buy that. I say to them, bosh and nausea, and a pox on whomever in the Postal Service made this completely misguided decision.”

I was a junior at the University of North Carolina (or “The University of Negroes and Communists” as Helms coined my beloved alma mater) when he decided not seek another term in Congress. I won’t deny the fact that we celebrated, though I’m not sure replacing him with Liddy Dole was much of an improvement.

I am not rejoicing today, because I never rejoice in the death of any individual, no matter how little I respect them or how much I hate them. But I hope that with his death, there is a symbolic death as well.

Jesse Helms is not only a three-decade veteran of Congress who spent his career championing the causes of ignorance and intolerance. He is also a hero to small but vocal group of conservative Christians — the type who like to couch obviously racist statements with phrases like, “I’m not a racist, but…” I know these people. I used to live among them. My family and friends worshiped Mr. Helms, and held him up as a shining example.

I hope that his death may be another another milestone in the fight to end an era of hate and intolerance. And I hope that the leaders who rise up to replace this dying breed of politician, regardless of party, will remember that even their political foes are human beings who deserve equal rights and protections under the law.