My daily commute sometimes helps me figure out what to write. Last week a large SUV slid in front of me on 17th after it made the turn off Independence. No turn signal. Nothing. Not unusual for Wilmington or anywhere else I’ve driven. For the rest of my ride to work, I had the pleasure of driving behind a specimen of gentility, grace and humor. I could tell he was all that and more from the funny way he didn’t use a blinker—and from his bumper sticker, a Confederate flag with “Fighting Terrorism Since 1861” boldly emblazoned on it.
My first thought was that paying teachers enough so they don’t have to work three jobs to raise a family is only one of many reasons why the North Carolina teacher’s “Rally for Respect” in Raleigh on May 1st is necessary. My second thought was gratitude. My fellow traveler and his bumper sticker helped me clarify this week’s topic.
I had planned on linking Philadelphia’s Kate Smith statue controversy to our Silent Sam issue. For anyone unfamiliar with this newest racial controversy, Philadelphia, my old stomping grounds, erected a statue of singer Kate Smith in 1987. The statue commemorated her achievements helping the Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships in 1974 and 1975. These championships are the only times the Flyers have hoisted Lord Stanley’s cup.
How did the “Songbird of the South” contribute to the cause? Kate sang “God Bless America” before “must-win” games. The Flyers’ record with her is outstanding. She scored nary a goal. She was a talisman, a good-luck charm. She was a superstition that rose to mythic status. (According to Wikipedia, the tradition wasn’t started to inspire victory but to reduce tensions around the Vietnam War. In 1969 a Flyers’ executive noticed fans often left their seat during the National Anthem but stayed and sang along with “God Bless America.”)
Philadelphia recently decided to remove Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America” from the pre-game playlist and cover her statue after it came to light Kate sang several racist songs in the 1930s. (Yankee Stadium removed her rendition of the song, too.) My initial reaction was, while the method of Silent Sam’s removal was wrong, removing him might have some merit. Yet, banishing Kate Smith showed that my left-leaning friends had been struck by lightning bolts of self-righteous stupidity and knocked completely off point. I really had no idea where people whose views I usually align with were coming from about Kate Smith.
Silent Sam is one of hundreds of statues, plaques and memorials that commemorate the Confederacy scattered throughout the South. Monuments to fallen soldiers in cemeteries or in a family member’s backyard are one thing, but memorializing superstitions and myths of the “Lost Cause” on public property are quite another. The numerous monuments to the Confederacy on the capitol grounds in Raleigh, and Silent Sam formerly in a place of prominence at Chapel Hill, are horribly out of step with the values of an immigrant melting-pot nation. It’s even more troubling the monuments were erected two generations after the Civil War itself, by those that preferred superstitions and myths of the past to the challenges of a world moving forward toward racial and economic justice.
I still have mixed feelings about Kate Smith’s song and statue. Banishing her might be a bit much. It seems like activist energy could be better spent supporting teachers or other more practical issues. But I have a much better idea where my left-leaning friends are coming from. They were probably coming from the lane next to me, or a similar lane behind a similar bumper sticker in Philly, New York, Missouri or Wyoming. We may have Silent Sam and Confederate memorials on every corner, but we do not have exclusive rights to in-your-face racism.
Kate Smith died in Raleigh. Silent Sam lurks somewhere in Chapel Hill. Maybe one day my fellow traveler’s bumper sticker, statues of the “Songbird of the South” and Silent Sam will be housed here in North Carolina at the Covfeve Museum. It is there that well-paid, highly respected educators will teach kids a little slice of the complex history of race, poverty and power in America.
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