The Sixers took a three-to-one lead in their playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets this weekend, but that’s not the day’s biggest sports story. That honor goes to the Philadelphia Flyers, who’ve decided to cut ties with their good luck charm — the late singer Kate Smith.
Turns out Smith, whose version of “God Bless America” was often played before Flyers games, spent a portion of her early career singing racist songs. One of those tunes, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” begins this way: “Someone had to pick the cotton. Someone had to pick the corn. Someone had to slave and be able to sing. That’s why darkies were born.”
This song and others were from the 1930s, but the Flyers are cutting ties with Smith anyway. Not only will they stop playing her version of “God Bless America” at their games. They also removed a statue of Smith from the South Philadelphia sports complex. The Flyers took decisive action based on principle, and I’m left to wonder why the City of Philadelphia can’t do the same.
Watching the Flyers rid themselves of Kate Smith’s racial baggage in a period of two days places a spotlight firmly on Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who promised in 2017 to move the statue of former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo from Paine Plaza, the courtyard in front of the Municipal Services Building. That’s public property.
Rizzo, you may remember, was police commissioner and mayor of the City of Philadelphia, and ran a police department that engaged in a pattern of police brutality so pervasive that the FBI said it “shocked the conscience.”
So why were the Flyers so quick to take action on the Kate Smith statue while our city’s leaders drag their feet on the Rizzo statue? I asked Mayor Jim Kenney about the Rizzo statue in a 2018 radio interview. He told me that moving the statue would cost $100,000. When I pointed out that $100,000 was a tiny fraction of the $4.3 billion budget for FY 2018, Kenney promised that he would move the statue. With the mayoral primaries less than one month away, Kenney still hasn’t done so.
I followed up with the mayor’s office to see if anything had changed since my interview with Kenney, and received the following statement from mayoral spokesperson Lauren Cox. “The City has previously stated that the removal of the Rizzo statue would be tied to the re-envisioning of Paine Plaza. Renovating Paine Plaza – like LOVE Park and Dilworth Park – will take time to bid, plan, design, contract, and begin construction. An RFQ for the Paine Plaza redesign was issued in the fall of 2018, and we are moving forward with the first phase of the project, which will include a structural assessment of the Plaza.”
All that means that the Rizzo statue will not be moved before the primary election takes place on May 21.
Faced with a similar issue, the Flyers didn’t make promises or initiate a lengthy process. They took action, and they explained why. Kate Smith’s early songs contained “lyrics and sentiments that are incompatible with the values of our organization, and evoke painful and unacceptable themes,” the team’s statement said.
In other words, the Flyers saw a problem with race and they dealt with it immediately. They did so even though hockey is overwhelmingly white, even though the sport has few black fans, and even though some of the team’s followers were angered by the move.
This is not the first time the Flyers have taken action that directly affects Philadelphia’s black community. In 2011, through their Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, the Flyers worked with the City of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania to transform the ice skating rink at Simons Recreation Center into a year-round venue. That rink is less than two miles from my home, and I know black youth who now play hockey because the Flyers took action. The team took that same posture when they were faced with the Kate Smith issue.
So here’s my question: Why is a team in a lily-white sport more responsive on these kinds of racial issues than a mayor who’s leading a city that’s mostly black and brown?
We’ve been told that statues are the least of our problems. We’ve been told that the city has more important things to do, and perhaps those things are true.
However, if the mayor promised to remove the Rizzo statue from public property, he should make good on that promise. And as the Flyers proved by removing the Kate Smith statue so quickly, it shouldn’t take him two years to do so.