(The Root) — The Republican National Committee has been working to shed the GOP's image as a party that is not welcoming toward people of color. And for months Republican grassroots activists and local leaders have been the party's biggest obstacles to its rebranding efforts, doing more to destroy the Grand Old Party's image, particularly among black voters, than the most vocal Democrat. On the heels of a number of racial gaffes and missteps comes perhaps the most notable Republican racial misfire of 2013: Last week Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said in a speech, "We need 100 more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate."
For those who may not appreciate the significance of Cruz's comment, here's an analogy: Imagine if President Barack Obama gave a speech and said, "We need 100 more like Louis Farrakhan." My guess is that some people — namely, members of the news media, his political foes and anyone with a conscience — would have a problem with such a statement, given Farrakhan's bigoted history. The late Sen. Jesse Helms is no better.
Longtime Washington Post columnist David Broder, now deceased, perhaps said it best with the title of a column published shortly after the North Carolina Republican's 2001 retirement from the Senate: "Jesse Helms, White Racist." Broder, who was white and one of the most respected political writers in history, wrote, "What is unique about Helms — and from my viewpoint, unforgivable — is his willingness to pick at the scab of the great wound of American history, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and to inflame racial resentment against African Americans."
Highlights of some of Helms' handiwork include long-standing opposition to civil rights advancements for African Americans. He was one of the Southern Democrats who switched parties, becoming a Republican over the issue. He later opposed the holiday celebrating the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1990 he further solidified his place in modern-day political infamy when his campaign released what is widely considered to be one of the most racially inflammatory political ads in recent memory. The ad, titled "Hands," exploited the issue of affirmative action to scare white voters. (You can watch it here.)
But for many African Americans, the most troubling aspect of Helms' legacy is that he appears to have held on to his racist tendencies long after the early battles of the civil rights movement had been fought. Furthermore, those tendencies were not even subtle. According to former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, the only African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, Helms attempted to racially bully her during a personal encounter between the two. As recounted in the Los Angeles Times in 1993:
Moseley-Braun, a Democrat from Illinois, told the story at the National Urban League annual dinner Wednesday night, about two weeks after another tangle with Helms in which she defeated his move to renew a patent on the Confederate flag insignia.
The incident happened Tuesday, she said. When Helms stepped into the elevator, "he saw me standing there, and he started to sing, 'I wish I was in the land of cotton … ' And he looked at Sen. Hatch and said, 'I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing 'Dixie' until she cries.'
"And I looked at him and said, 'Sen. Helms, your singing would make me cry if you sang 'Rock of Ages,' " Moseley-Braun said.
Cruz's praise of Helms recalls the firestorm that erupted in 2002 when former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi praised South Carolina's notorious segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, saying, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
As was noted by critics, Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform, saying during his campaign, "I want to tell you, ladies and gentleman, that there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches." (After his death it was revealed that Thurmond had secretly fathered a daughter with his family's underage black domestic decades earlier and had financially supported his daughter for years, including during his anti-integration rhetoric.)
Lott was denounced by then-President George W. Bush and shortly thereafter relinquished his Senate leadership role. The Cruz controversy is just yet another race flap to ensnare the RNC.
Although party Chairman Reince Priebus has increased the presence of people of color on the RNC staff and tried to highlight issues that may tap into some of the more socially conservative instincts of members of communities of color, he has spent nearly as much time being forced to denounce racially inappropriate remarks by members of his party. Weeks ago the RNC condemned a state senator in Colorado for a racially insensitive publicity stunt involving fried chicken. That incident came on the heels of a number of other missteps involving the party and race.
These controversies raise the question of whether the Republican Party has any hope of making inroads with nonwhite voters without taking drastic measures — such as publicly calling out the racist wing of the party and shunning those who engage in such behaviors.
The Root contacted the RNC for a comment regarding Cruz's remarks and will update this post if we hear back.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.