If Kate Smith's statue goes, so should Muhammad Ali's Liberty Medal
Now that the Philadelphia Flyers and Comcast Spectacor have officially removed the statue of Kate Smith outside the Wells Fargo Center and banned her famous version of "God Bless America," there is another question that needs to be addressed: should Muhammad Ali, a racial separatist and supporter of George Wallace, continue to be honored by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia?
Fans of Ali know that on September 13, 2012, he was given the prestigious Liberty Medal for being a "Champion of Freedom" and is currently on the Constitution Center's list of medal-winners, which dates back to 1989, when Poland's Lech Walesa won the award. According to President Clinton, "Ali embodies the spirit of the Liberty Medal by embracing the ideals of the Constitution freedom, self-governance, equality, and empowerment and helping to spread them across the globe."
Despite Clinton's praise, Ali was still a man with a controversial past — a past filled with rhetoric much more radical than that of Kate Smith. In a 1968 interview with storied Boston Globe reporter Bud Collins, Ali said whites and blacks living together is as unnatural as humans living with wild animals. "I don't hate rattlesnakes, I don't hate tigers — I just know I can't get along with them," Ali told Collins. "I don't want to try to eat with them or sleep with them."
When pressed by Collins about this separatist view, Ali doubled down. "I know whites and blacks cannot get along," he said. "This is nature." Ali then went on to publicly proclaim his support for Alabama's Governor George Wallace, the infamous segregationist, who was running for president.
"I like what he says," Ali told Collins. "Negroes shouldn't force themselves in white neighborhoods, and white people shouldn't have to move out of the neighborhood just because one Negro comes. Now that makes sense."
As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote in June of 2016, shortly after Ali's passing, "This was not some inexplicable aberration. It reflected a hateful worldview that Ali, as a devotee of Elijah Muhammad and the segregationist Nation of Islam, espoused for years."
Yet in 2012, National Constitution Center president and CEO David Eisner still praised the retired boxer, saying, "Muhammad Ali symbolizes all that makes America great, while pushing us as a people and as a nation to be better."
Apparently, Eisner didn't realize that Ali had stood in alliance with the Ku Klux Klan, having attended one of their rallies. In the 2008 HBO documentary Thrilla in Manila, Ali describes the rally, complete with white hoods and a burning cross, where he stood on the platform, preaching racial segregation. "Black people should marry their own women," Ali shouted. "Bluebirds with bluebirds, red birds with red birds, pigeons with pigeons, eagles with eagles. God didn't make no mistake!"
In a 1975, interview with Playboy Magazine, Ali even went as far as to say, "A black man should be killed if he's messing with a white woman." The same went for white men hitting on black women. "We'll kill anybody who tries to mess around with our women," Ali insisted. According to the National Constitution Center's website, however, Ali is "a champion of freedom who embodies everything the award was established to honor: individuals of courage and conviction who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe."
Sure, Ali matured over time, and like Malcolm X, he softened some of his views. But then again, so did Kate Smith. In 1982, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, because her rendition of "God Bless America" helped sell millions of dollars in war bonds during World War II.
"Those simple and deeply moving words, God Bless America, have taken on extra meaning because of the way she sang them," President Reagan said. "In giving us a magnificent, selfless talent like Kate Smith's, God has blessed America."
This raises the question: if the 1982 Presidential Freedom Medal–winner who is accused of racial insensitivity doesn't deserve to be honored with a bronze statue outside the Wells Fargo Center, does Ali, a racial separatist and Klan rally attendee, deserve to keep his Liberty Medal and remain on the National Constitution Center's prestigious list of winners?
Interestingly, the song Kate Smith is under fire for, titled "That's Why Darkies Were Born," was also recorded by Paul Robeson, the legendary civil rights activist. Other racially insensitive songs recorded by Robeson include "The Little Piccaninny's Gone to Sleep" from his record "Plantation Medley."
Some have argued that Smith's songs from the 1930s have been taken out of context. No one, however, has called for Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia to be renamed because of racial insensitivity. And no one seems to care that Muhammad Ali was, in Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby's words, "an unabashed bigot."
When it comes to repenting of past misdeeds in Philadelphia, it looks as though Kate Smith is all alone.