Lab Director Disobeyed Orders to Fly Flags at Half Staff to Honor Late Senator...
' I cannot in good conscience honor such a man who fought so hard against civil and human rights throughout his life'
By Jon Ponder on 7/10/2008, 9:20am PT  

Guest blogged by Jon Ponder, Pensito Review.

L.F. Eason III, the director of the state of North Carolina's Standards Laboratory in Raleigh, was forced to resign this week because he refused to follow an order to lower the laboratory's flags in honor of former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, who died late last week. Eason, 51, had worked for the state for 29 years, the entirety of his career.

In email explaining his position, Eason wrote...

"I made a decision to refuse to lower our flags at the NC Standards Laboratory to half mast in honor of Jesse Helms as soon as I heard of his death. I cannot in good conscience honor such a man who fought so hard against civil and human rights throughout his life. Even to his death bed, he refused to apologize for the damage he caused. Now, I stand by this decision. It is a personal decision, but obviously affects my job at the lab. It has been over ruled by Division and Departmental Management and as I look out my window, I'm ashamed to see the flags lowered ...

"I also understand that my decision is not acceptable. You cannot ignore that fact. There is the law, but there is also a higher law I must follow as a matter of conscience."

In another email to his staff, Eason said he opposed honoring Helms because of Helms' "doctrine of negativity, hate and prejudice." He cited Helms' lifelong opposition to extending civil rights to African-Americans and his "doctrine of negativity, hate, and prejudice [that] cost North Carolina and our nation much that we may never regain."

The order to lower flags on all state facilities came from the office of Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, and flags were lowered at the state capitol, both houses of which are controlled by Democrats.

Eason is a Democrat, but he told a reporter that he often splits his vote...

[He] had no problems lowering the flag for former [Democratic governor and senator] Terry Sanford or President Ronald Reagan. But he remembers wondering whether he would be willing to lower the flag after President Richard Nixon's funeral.He never had to make that decision, since it rained both days.

Eason's decision to follow his principles in not lowering the flags for Helms exacted a great personal and professional cost:

[He] pleaded several times to be allowed to stay at the lab. [He] had worked for the agriculture department since graduating from college, was paid $65,235 a year as the state metrology lab manager.

"I designed and built that lab," he said. "Even though technically the bricks and mortar belong to the state of North Carolina, I feel very strongly that everything that comes out of there is my responsibility."

This story underscores the deep and abiding antipathy felt by millions of North Carolinians toward Jesse Helms, whose courtly manners masked a seething hatred of blacks, gays and other minorities. For the entirety of Helms' three decades in politics, voters in the nation's 10th largest state were equally divided about him, with 45 percent who loathed him and 45 percent who loved him.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Helms perfected the strategy of winning elections using the "50 plus 1" formula that Karl Rove and George Bush used to win the presidency in 2000 and 2001. To get to 50-plus-1, rather than building a consensus among blocks of voters in order to win decisively, politicians use divisive tactics to inflame fear or hatred among the lesser-educated, conservative-leaning undecideds that are guaranteed to drive them to the polls.

North Carolina Republicans cynically (and secretly) referred to Helms' tactics as either "emptying the pews" --- by creating a firestorm around so-called moral issues --- or "emptying the trailer parks" --- by creating a controversy around race. The most famous instance of the latter was in Helms' 1990 race against Harvey Gantt, the charismatic and politically centrist former mayor of Charlotte, the state's largest city. Just a few days before the election, Helms released his infamous "Hands" ad that depicted a white man losing a job, supposedly because it had been given to a unqualified black man. (See video of the ad above.)

Jesse Helms retired from the Senate in 2003, and spent his final years lost in dementia. In the few short years since, he has all but been forgotten. L.F. Eason was right on principle: Helms was an embarrassment who should not be glorified in death.

Being forgotten is better than he deserves.

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