Upon Smith's death in 1953, Helms returned home to work for the North Carolina Bankers Assn., turning the group's monthly magazine into a platform for his political views. He was persuaded to run for a City Council seat in Raleigh.
But before long, Helms found his real calling as a nightly television commentator for WRAL in North Carolina, a post he held from 1960 to 1972. He blasted the "pinkos" and "Yankees" in Washington, and criticized King's inner circle of civil rights leaders for "proven records of communism, socialism and sex perversion." He railed against Social Security, calling it "nothing more than doles and handouts."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, July 07, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Helms' death: The obituary of former Sen. Jesse Helms in Saturday's Section A incorrectly described the nomination of William F. Weld to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Weld was nominated by President Clinton, not President Reagan; his nomination came after he served as governor of Massachusetts, not before.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Helms obituary: The obituary of former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms in Sunday's Section A said he was the only senator to vote against making the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. The Senate vote on the bill was 78-22.
Persuaded by conservative voters to run for the Senate, Helms continually showcased the campaign tactics that would mark his career.
In the 1972 race, pitted against a Democratic congressman from Durham, Helms used code words that enraged liberals. The congressman's name was Nick Galifianakis. Helms' slogan: "Elect Jesse Helms -- He's One of Us."
His next big challenge was in 1984, from moderate Democrat Jim Hunt, a popular two-term governor who was points ahead in the polls a year before the election. Then Helms launched his filibuster against the King holiday, a tactic that proved so popular in North Carolina that Hunt's lead was cut in half.
On election day, Helms won 63% of the white vote, according to the Voters Education Project, a nonprofit advocacy group in Atlanta. Hunt got nearly 99% of the black vote, but the turnout -- 61% of the state's blacks registered -- was not enough to overcome Helms' appeal in rural eastern North Carolina. It helped, too, that Reagan was atop the GOP ticket and was overwhelmingly reelected.
Perhaps the most infamous Helms race was in 1990, when he ran against Harvey Gantt, a black architect and former mayor of Charlotte. The campaign became notorious among strategists for a television ad showing a white man's hands crumpling a rejected job application as a voice intoned: "You needed that job. And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt said it is."
The so-called "white hands ad" had an immediate effect. "Gantt was leading until that ad," recalled Emory University's Merle Black. "His people were really brokenhearted." Gantt lost that election as well as a rematch six years later.
Ferrel Guillory, a longtime Helms watcher who directed the liberal editorial page at the News & Observer in Raleigh when Helms was at the peak of his senatorial power, called him "a man of the small-town rural traditionalist South."
Helms never forgot, never changed. "It was part of his political appeal, too," said Guillory, who now runs a program on Southern politics and media at the University of North Carolina. "They always said, 'You know where Jesse stands.' "
Helms had suffered from ill health in recent years. He had open-heart surgery in 2002 to replace a worn-out pig valve installed 10 years earlier. He had knee replacement surgery in 1998 and was diagnosed in 2000 with "peripheral neuropathy," a condition that numbed his feet and impaired his balance, forcing him to ride through the halls of Congress in a motorized scooter.
Helms is survived by his wife of 65 years, Dorothy, three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild, all of North Carolina.
Services are scheduled for Thursday in Raleigh.
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.