You may have heard that former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms died this week. I woke up to a couple e-mails from people informing me of his death and I was shocked to learn he had been yet alive. Indeed, as I said to my daughter, I thought he was born dead. One of the finest descriptions of Helms I ever read was in one of Dave Barry’s yearly recaps, when our fine senator had done something thoroughly humiliating once again, and Barry described him thusly: “Senator Jesse Helms (R–Hell).”
But this man, one L.F. Eason III, was fired from the only job he’s ever had, a 29-year veteran of the State Department of Agriculture, for refusing to lower the state and American flags to half-mast in honor of Helm’s senate service and death. Eason did so for the following reason:
As reported in the News & Observer, “He told his staff that he did not think it was appropriate to honor Helms because of his ‘doctrine of negativity, hate, and prejudice’ and his opposition to civil rights bills and the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.” After much wrangling with his supervisor, who insisted on the state directive, Mr. Eason was told he could either have his staff lower the flags or retire. Mr. Eason is only 51, but he chose to retire.
Now as a Quaker there is little in this world that means less to me than a flag, or iconography of any kind. I have no relationship to the country I live in represented by cloth or a pin or a snowglobe or a hand-painted cat. (People paint cats, it’s very interesting.) I wouldn’t have cared if Mr. Eason had lowered the flag, raised it, put twinkle lights on it, or set it on fire. But instead he took the state at its word: you say this symbol is of such grave importance you would ruin the life of a man who has given his adult life to his job, in the name of a man who was once quoted as calling the University of North Carolina “the University of Niggers and Communists.” The list of Helms’s crimes against the good will have to be compiled by someone else, someone with the stomach and ink cartridges for it. But the list of people who stood up to him, even in death, can add one more name, and I thank this man and I hold him and his family in the Light, for discerning what is true and acting on it to his own peril.