Top 12 Racist Politicians of Modern History

The Right Wing

1. Jesse Helms, Unabashed Racist

Jesse Helms was the last unabashed racist politician in this country. His ascension to Congress was largely due to his willingness to pick at the scab of slavery and segregation, and to inflame racial resentment against African Americans. There have likely been many racists after him, but he was the last to stake his political career on it.

Back in 1984, a reporter summed up Helms' Senate campaign. "Racial epithets and standing in school doors are no longer fashionable," the reporter wrote, “but 1984 proved that the ugly politics of race are alive and well. Helms is their master."

Helms launched a filibuster blocking a bill that would make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Helms' campaign literature warned repeatedly about black voter registration drives. On election eve he accused his opponent of being supported by "homosexuals, the labor union bosses and the crooks."

In 1990, in an election against African American Harvey Gantt, Helms aired an ad, "You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota."

2. Jim 'Raghead' Knotts

For this example, we don’t have to reach back too far. In the 2010 South Carolina Republican primary, Knotts calls his political rival Nikki Haley and President Obama ragheads.

"We've already got a raghead in the White House, we don't need another raghead in the governor's mansion,” Knotts said. He later apologized for the slur, saying he made it in jest. Haley won that primary.

3. Robert Byrd, Pre-Transformation

Shortly after his death earlier this year, the late Robert Byrd’s personal story was told as one of great transformation. He did, later in life, become a champion of civil rights. However, during the early part of his career, he was a unabashed bigot and member of the Ku Klux Klan. Byrd was a Democrat.

“I am a former Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan in Raleigh County and the adjoining counties of the state ... The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia,” Byrd said.

In eulogizing Byrd, former President Bill Clinton made this explanation of Byrd's history with the KKK:

He once had a fleeting association with the Ku Klux Klan, what does that mean? I’ll tell you what it means. He was a country boy from the hills and hollows from West Virginia. He was trying to get elected. And maybe he did something he shouldn’t have done and he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that’s what a good person does. There are no perfect people. There are certainly no perfect politicians.

4. John McCain, No Friend To Asians

During the 2004 presidential election, Sen. John McCain told a group of reporters on his campaign bus, "I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live."

"Gook" is a derogatory term used against Asians. Although McCain later said he was referring specifically to his prison guards and not all Asians, many Asian Americans took offense. McCain refused to apologize. Despite the gooks remark, McCain was still considered a serious candidate in that election. And ironically, he was not soundly defeated by Bush until the Bush campaign leveled their own race-baiting at him, claiming his adopted daughter was actually the love child of an adulterous affair he had with a black woman.

5. James L. Hart, Tennessee, Believer In Eugenics

In 2004, Hart won the Republican primary in Tennessee, vowing that if elected he would work toward keeping "less favored races'' from reproducing or immigrating to the United States. In campaign literature, Hart contends that "poverty genes'' threaten to turn the United States into "one big Detroit.''

"When I knock on a door and say white children deserve the same rights as everybody else, the enthusiastic response is truly amazing,'' he said. Fortunately, he lost the general election.

6. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi: 'I didn't know they were racist.'

In addition to praising the life and work of separatist Strom Thurmond, Lott also spoke to the white supremacist group Council of Conservative Citizens no less than five times.

 He later claimed he had no idea the group was made up of white supremacists. But in one speech, he said the CCC "stand[s] for the right principles and the right philosophy." 

7. Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, the Tip Of the Iceberg

Barr actually touched off a fairly decent-sized scandal in 1998 for speaking at the CCC’s National Convention. This resulted in a public distancing between the CCC and several prominent members of the Republican National Convention. If it weren't for Barr's utter disregard for minorities, the more secretive alliance between the CCC and the RNC might never have been exposed.

8. Pickax-Wielding Lester Maddox

This former governor of Georgia was known for wielding baseball bats and pickaxes in his fight to preserve segregation. He was a restaurant owner and actually got into politics following his refusal to serve black customers at his Pickrick restaurant. He served Georgia as governor in 1966, but was term-limited, and then served as lieutenant governor. He later ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1974 and for president in 1976, the candidate of the American Independent Party. He died in 2003 at 87.

Maddox believed blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, that integration was a communist plot, that segregation was somewhere justified in Scripture and that a federal mandate to integrate schools was "ungodly, un-Christian and un-American."

9. Miss. Gov. Haley Barbour, the Most Mainstream of Them All

Barbour is actually being considered as a viable Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential race. Barbour, according to the CCC’s news magazine, the Citizens Informer, has attended CCC events along with 38 other federal officials. Barbour has denied the association. But a former employee said she attended one event for him and realized immediately that the CCC were hate-mongers. Later in 2003, Barbour was photographed at a CCC fundraising event with supporters and council officials including CCC field director Bill Lord. The CCC is believed to be partly responsible for Barbour’s defeat of incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove--who led the fight to change the Mississippi state flag. 

When asked what role the CCC played in his candidacy, Barbour responded, "Once you start down the slippery slope of saying, 'That person can't be for me,' then where do you stop? Old segregationists? Former Ku Klux Klan?"
 Barbour easily defeated Musgrove.

10. State Rep. John Moore, No Denial Here

Moore has given at least two speeches to various CCC chapters. When asked about it, Moore said, "Is the NAACP on you-all's hit list? Well, they need to be."

Moore said he would "not brand" the CCC "as a KKK-style organization," and added that he felt "very comfortable" meeting with the group's members. "They had folks there in suits and ties, and folks who just left the garage," Moore said. "It was very diverse occupationally."

11. State Rep. Tommy Woods

Woods is one of the few legislators who actually admitted to his association with the CCC. He disputed the “hate-group” label. "That's not true, lady," he told the Intelligence Report. "It's very conservative, Christian people that believe in Jesus as their savior. I've never known any one of them to do anything that would cause anyone any suffering. They've helped people."

12. South Carolina State Rep. Charles Sharpe

Sharpe was a proud member and ardent defender of the CCC.

"They think like I do," Sharpe told the Miami Herald. “Especially on the issue of racial intermarriage. Cows and horses don't mix. I don't want any of my people doing it."

Sharpe later went on to become South Carolina's commissioner of agriculture. He was arrested and charged with taking at least $20,000 in bribes to protect an illegal cockfighting ring.

This story first appeared on offers insight, resources and opinions on African American issues. Our content serves to advance the debate toward black economic progress by focusing on finance, politics and culture. Register and read more at

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