An open letter to Kate Smith.
I know you left us in 1986, but since Wednesday marks the 112th year since you were born, it seems like a good time to wish you a happy birthday.
A number of folks are too young to remember you as the First Lady of Radio or your string of million-selling records, but many fondly recall your years as the Flyers’ good-luck charm, especially during their heyday.
You should know people are rallying on your behalf after two pro teams, the Flyers and Yankees, smeared your name recently. You are getting lots of support, based on the never-ending emails I have received. Some people are vowing not to attend a Flyers game until your good name is restored. Others are trying to organize the singing of your trademark song, “God Bless America,” after the first period of home games.
My inbox has been overflowing with comments from people who, while acknowledging they cringe at the America of nearly 90 years ago, say you were a product of your era in regard to two problematic songs you recorded in the 1930s. It was an era, I think you would agree, in which African Americans were discriminated against, an era that, thankfully, we have improved upon but still have a long way to go.
That doesn’t make your words less hurtful, but it puts them in perspective. Learn from the past but don’t extinguish it.
You learned from it. People pointed out that in 1945 you were honored for fighting racism, that you gave many African Americans their big break on your TV show, that you raised more than $600 million in war bonds to help finance World War II.
The Flyers, in a knee-jerk reaction made a day after the Yankees banned playing your stirring rendition of “God Bless America,” also pulled the plug on your famous song, put a black tarp atop your statue, and later took the statue away and put it in hiding. The good news: The mayor of Wildwood wants it, and maybe if he gives the Flyers lifetime passes to Morey’s Piers, they will ship the statue to the boardwalk.
I wanted to ask the Flyers why they reacted to the Yankees’ decision so quickly and didn’t do a thorough investigation, especially since the team won’t play again until the fall. By contrast, according to a local Black Lives Matter activist, the Flyers failed to respond for more than a year to complaints from him, and others, about your work.
The Flyers declined to answer my question, saying through a spokesman that they stood by their original statement.
A few days later, in light of an Inquirer story that showed you tried to bring races together, the Flyers were asked if they had considered bringing back your statue.
Again, they said they stood by their original statement.
The statement said some of the songs you recorded contain lyrics that "are incompatible with the values of our organization.”
That got me wondering: Are the Flyers progressive and diverse?
There aren’t many African Americans in the NHL, so it wouldn’t be fair to criticize the Flyers for having just one black player — Wayne Simmonds, who was traded on Feb. 25 — on their 23-man roster for most of the 2018-19 season. The Flyers have had many black players in their history.
But when I went to the Flyers’ media guide and looked at the club’s front office and high-level employees, there are 114 photos of those workers. All 114 are white.
I haven’t done an investigation (like the Flyers should have done with you, Kate), but based on what I’ve read and the people I’ve talked to about your character, I believe you would have been disappointed in those numbers.
The Inquirer’s John Timpane wrote a story last week about a long-forgotten radio speech you made in 1945, one in which you passionately attacked racism and bigotry. You called them “diseases that eat away the fiber of speech.”
Millions listened to you on that CBS radio show as you called for every church and family to commit to tolerance and understanding.
That made me think that you had either grown immensely from the words you recorded in those two 1930s songs — one believed to be a satirical jab at racists, the other performed in a movie — or that you sang them only because you were instructed to do so by your bosses.
By the way, I found several stories from the mid-1940s that noted you were given awards from the Hebrew Institute of Long Island, the Disabled American Veterans, and the National Conference of Christian and Jews for your efforts to combat racial hatred.
From the Flyers’ perspective, your two songs from the 1930s put them in a no-win situation. Do nothing, and some would have branded them racists. Take a stand and remove your song and statue, and they are branded as being too politically correct and blind to the (sad) climate of that era.
In any event, the Flyers ignored that you fought racism. Hey, no team or individual is perfect. You probably would have been disappointed by the Flyers’ decisions, but I have a feeling you would have said we must be tolerant of ignorance and learn from it.
Anyway, happy birthday, Kate. I wish you were here to defend yourself, but your character speaks for itself.