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April 22, 2019

Why both the Flyers and their anti-PC haters are right (and wrong) in the Kate Smith saga

Kate Smith might not have been a racist, but that song (even if parody) sure can be interpreted as such

Opinion Kate Smith
Kate Smith Statue South Philadelphia Peetlesnumber1/via Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Kate Smith statue at the South Philadelphia Stadium Complex.

I first heard about Kate Smith-gate roughly 30 minutes before the clock struck Good Friday. At that point, word spread that the New York Yankees had relegated the Songbird of the South’s rendition of “God Bless America” to the annals of its seventh inning-stretch history.

This, because Smith – whose version of that anthemic tune was also a good-luck touchstone of the Philadelphia Flyers’ duo of successful Stanley Cup runs in the early 1970s – was also associated with “racist” tracks like 1931’s “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.”

In our world of social-media rapidity, the Yankees' move forced the Flyers organization’s hand.

One day later, it prompted Gritty’s team to announce it would also stop playing Smith’s version of the song, often played as a mashup with living anthem songstress Lauren Hart’s performance before the start of big games. (You know, like those that the squad would be playing right now had they qualified for the 2018-19 NHL playoffs, which they didn’t, unfortunately.)

At first, a black tarp was placed over the statue of Smith, which adorned the walkway between the Wells Fargo Center and Xfinity Live, a matter of feet from where the Spectrum once stood. By Easter Sunday, the statue was gone.

In a statement issued when many were at crowded Mass, Flyers President Paul Holmgren explained the move.

“The NHL principle ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ is at the heart of everything the Flyers stand for,” he said. “As a result, we cannot stand idle while material from another era gets in the way of who we are today.”

The statue removal – which happened with the speed that some hoped would have been replicated for that of Frank Rizzo, but is seemingly trapped in “Election Year Limbo” despite years of discussion about it – was explained as a step to “ensure the sentiments stirred this week are no longer echoed.”

What’s happened in the days since – over Easter Weekend, no less – was nothing short of entirely, and controversially, predictable. There were, in no particular order:

• Many people celebrating the Flyers’ move as the right thing to do.

• Many people condemning the Flyers’ move as an homage to “political correctness” and chiding those who disagree as being intellectually deficient to the point of not accepting that times were different in the 1930s, that Smith is too dead to defend herself and mounting soapboxes to declare, “I am boycotting the Flyers because of this” or “Kate Smith … helped defeat Hitler’s Germany.”

• A quieter subset of people realizing that both sides are, to a point, correct.

That latter group is where I reside in what’s become yet-another intractably divisive issue debated amid a soundtrack of screams, threats and hand-on-hips foot-stomping.

Was Smith a Southern racist who wink-nodded her way through a song that’s been presented as parody, a racist trope or nothing in between? I don’t know. We’d never had any deep discussions about life outlooks. Most of those pissed off on either side of the issue didn’t either and, as such, we’ll never know what was in her heart and mind in the 1930s.

But what we do know is that everything over the past four or five days has played out according to script, much in the same way it did last year with the Center City Starbucks controversy.

And, I’ll say now what I said then (with minor tweaks in brackets): “Nearly everybody involved – both at the [stadium district] on Thursday night and in central-casting reactions from all corners of the outrage spectrum – was in the [right and] wrong.”

Is the song being held up as a beacon of wrongfulness also racist? Even if parody, as seen through today’s lens, the lyrics absolutely are. At best, it’s a less-cheeky “Blazing Saddles.”

Is it “too PC” to instantly scrub history clean some four to eight decades with scant discussion? Even if it’s the right thing to do, absolutely. Symbolism is important, and the Smith statue would've been a festering sore spot unless there'd been a discussion about its fate.

Frank RIzzo Statue Spray PaintAndrew Parent/PhillyVoice

The statue of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo was spray-painted with the phrase “black power” during the night of Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017.

Unlike City Hall with the Rizzo statue, the Flyers have the right – as a private enterprise – to do as they please and in this case, doing as they please meant offering an olive branch to those who probably don’t even go to games anyway. So be it.

If anything, the people threatening boycotts should be happy, what with the orange and black not winning a Stanley Cup since 1975. 

Look at Kate Smith relegation as being akin to the 2008 Phillies breaking through that weird “curse” related to building heights in Center City.

The statue and pregame song were meaningless totems which had nothing to do with your love of the game. Talk about boycotts all you want; you’ll be back before Carter Hart – the goalie born 12 years after Smith’s death – sits front-and-center on a Broad Street Parade float.

And, if anything, the people celebrating the Flyers decision should be asking themselves this simple question: Why the heck didn't they know about any of this until the Yankees fitted them with a collar and led them into the middle of a controversy that the organization either didn't know existed, knew about but didn't think would see the light of day, or didn't care enough to shake things up until they were forced to do so?

So, yeah, this a long way of saying get over it, which is exactly what people on both sides should do and they most certainly will. After all, the Flyers won't return to the South Philly ice for a meaningful game until y'all resume the Rizzo-statue fight a month before Philadelphia's general elections.

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