In defense of Kate Smith

The long arm of the PC police has reached back to the ’30s and arrested, prosecuted and sentenced the late singer Kate Smith. Smith, who popularized Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America” and was a female pioneer in early television, recorded songs that today in hindsight are viewed as racist.

An old friend, Harry Covert, writes to recall the early days of black-and-white TV when he (and I) watched Kate Smith’s television program. Covert remembers one show interrupted by a news bulletin announcing the attempted assassination of Harry S. Truman by militant Puerto Rican activists. He notes that today’s Puerto Ricans are not smeared by that incident, so why is Smith being figuratively tarred and feathered?

In 1940, Irving Berlin, the Russian-born composer, established the God Bless America Fund “for the benefit of the youth of America,” donating the proceeds from the song’s royalties to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. Yankees baseball great Joe DiMaggio was a trustee on the GBA Fund.

Smith, along with many other celebrities, donated her time to entertain troops during World War II. The PC crowd gives her no credit for that. The New York Yankees, an organization that should be proud of such history and DiMaggio’s association with it, stopped playing “God Bless America” at their games. The Philadelphia Flyers, which at one time asked Smith to sing the song live at their hockey games because when she did the team usually won, has also banned her voice.

As in so many cases with political correctness, the standard is unequally applied. What about Southern Democrats who approved of slavery and Jim Crow laws, poll literacy tests and opposed civil rights legislation? One of them, Sen. Richard Russell (D-GA), has a Senate office building named for him.

Then there is Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia. Not only was Byrd a member of the Ku Klux Klan, rising to the level of Exalted Cyclops in the bigoted organization, he spoke favorably of the Klan during the early stages of his political career. In 1956, Byrd wrote to the organization’s imperial wizard: “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.”

During his 1958 Senate campaign when he was 41, Byrd said his membership in the Klan was “the most egregious mistake I’ve ever made.” Still, in a 2001 interview on Fox News Sunday, in response to a question about race relations, Byrd, then 83, said, “I’ve seen a lot of white n—–s in my time.” He later apologized for the remark.

When it comes to naming buildings and other projects after politicians, The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, N.Y., editorializes against the practice: “There’s a state park on Long Island and a parkway near Niagara Falls named after Robert Moses. Moses was a 20th-century urban planner who was later revealed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, ‘The Power Broker,’ as a ruthless abuser of political power with racist tendencies who pushed through many major infrastructure projects that New York City residents now revile. Should his name be on public highways and parks?”

How far are we willing to take this retro-cleansing of American history? The Arlington County, Virginia Board may decide as early as this week to rename Jefferson Davis Highway, which runs through Arlington and Alexandria. Davis’ offense was being the president of the Confederacy. They have already renamed Washington-Lee High School, because of Robert E. Lee.

As for Kate Smith, when these imposers of the present on the past accomplish anything benefiting America, as did the singer and Irving Berlin, then we can talk. In the meantime, why not focus on efforts that will significantly help the poor and disenfranchised, such as school choice? Meaningless symbolism improves nothing.

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This year marks Cal Thomas’ 35th year

as a syndicated columnist.