Racism and the National Anthem are not new issues. They go back a long way.
I re-discovered this as I re-read a book by, of all people, the great Detroit Tigers baseball announcer Ernie Harwell, who I grew up listening to with his partner Paul Carey. Best baseball radio duo ever.
Published in 1985, “Tuned to Baseball” includes a chapter titled “Jose’s Song.” Harwell, in addition to being a longtime sportscaster, was a songwriter and musician as well. In that role, the Tigers asked him to choose the National Anthem singers for the city’s three World Series home games in 1968 – games 3, 4 and 5.
In Harwell’s words:
For the third game (the first in Detroit) my choice was Margaret Whiting. She was female, white, and represented the establishment. Margaret had strong Detroit ties. Her father and uncle, both famous songwriters, were Detroiters, and her sister Barbara still lived there.
For the second game, I picked Marvin Gaye – male, black, and a top star with a tremendous following. He also lived in Detroit.
Detroit race riots in 1967 and 1968 were still fresh in the minds of many at the time. Harwell proved his sensitivity to the era by choosing carefully his first two singers.
His choice for Game 5 on Oct. 7, 1968, revealed his deep concern for people of all racial and social backgrounds. Yet many who heard it were not happy with this musician’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.
To sing the National Anthem for Game 5, Harwell chose a relatively unknown but up-and-coming blind Puerto Rican singer: Jose Feliciano.
Feliciano stood by himself in deep center field, with only his guide dog and his guitar to accompany him. Wearing dark glasses (because he’s blind), Feliciano sang a bluesy rendition of Francis Scott Key’s battle song.
The intense reaction
The public’s response? In Harwell’s words:
That evening in my apartment, the phone was ringing off the hook. Radio men for interviews, newspapermen, TV men – all telling me that a furious reaction was sweeping across the country.
A couple of pages later in his book, Harwell discussed why he thought the response was so intense, and negative:
Riots were still taking place. The war in Vietnam was a major issue of the day. Drugs and crime-in-the-streets were causing even more unrest. The campuses were restless, and the chasm between young and old was deepening.
Into this vortex stepped Feliciano. The establishment reacted violently toward him. His wailing, bluesy, rock-singing style was different. Because he played a guitar and didn’t have a crew cut, the establishment equated him with “long-haired hippies.” Yet, his hair was not long. And (as his own statements later proved) his attitude toward the song and America leaned, if anything, more toward the establishment.
Even the dark glasses (worn because of blindness) prejudiced some against him. All his critics seemed ready to find something to protest. And they let him have it – full volley.
The plot deepens
What have we learned in the past half-century? Not much, it seems.
The establishment today is still fighting differences among us. It’s not Vietnam, but Russia or China. Racism, including riots and protests leading to death, destruction and plenty of publicity. Judging differences, including physical (and mental) disabilities.
We are ready to protest. And counter-protest. Full volley.
I think there’s a deeper issue in 2020 even than racism, even than COVID-19. Another issue set the stage for those crises to turn vitriolic. President Donald Trump is the lightning rod, but the issue goes deeper even than him.
The one non-negotiable issue in this country today is abortion.
The Republican Party is unabashedly “pro-life.” The Democratic Party supports abortion rights.
My opinion: Republicans are more anti-Democrat than they are pro-Trump. They cannot support any platform that allows abortion. Period. No other issue rises to the level that abortion does in the minds of staunch Republicans.
The wrong forum
The president of the United States, it should go without saying, faces many more issues besides that one. Foreign policy. The economy. The federal budget (and deficit). Education. “All men are created equal.” Public safety. Working with Congress. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He’s commander-in-chief of our military. And on and on.
That’s why abortion is the wrong issue to stake our nation’s soul on.
Here’s a better idea. If abortion is the engine that drives Republicans, the presidency is not the correct venue for that fight. Shutting down abortion clinics doesn’t solve the problem either; it just drives it underground, out of public view.
The number of abortions performed in 2017 was less than half the number performed in the peak year of 1973, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which calls itself a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally.
Even still, at 2014 abortion rates, about one in four (24%) women will have an abortion by age 45, the institute says.
Abortion is a complicated issue, with women who undergo the procedure listing several reasons – not just one – for doing it. Issues include not being financially prepared, an unplanned pregnancy, partner issues, focus on other children, and interfering with educational or vocational plans, according to a verywellhealth.com report updated last December.
Let’s focus on those issues rather than the procedure itself. In today’s sex-saturated society, that’s a tall task.
The right issue
Republicans, especially the evangelicals in the party, should realize that faith is a bigger, much bigger, issue than abortion – or politics itself. No, the Democrats don’t have all the answers. Republicans don’t either.
The Bible, and the savior who claims the Bible was written about Him, do have the answers. Again, not the Republican version of Jesus Christ. Please, no. Jesus is so far ahead of them.
The Bible talks of unconditional love, which is love that asks nothing in return. Sex of any type does not offer that. Politicians don’t offer that. Even churches themselves can’t provide that – and Biblical churches know it, and preach Jesus and not themselves.
Ernie Harwell, in his book on baseball, understood this. In addition to being a Hall of Fame broadcaster and songwriter, Harwell was a “born-again” Christian who let his faith shine, humbly, through his microphone and in the way he lived his life. He participated in the Major League Baseball Chapel program, which offers a faith message on Sunday mornings to ballplayers who can’t attend church because of time or they are away from home. He was married to his wife, Lulu, for 68 years. He visited clubhouses and heard the rough language, but he didn’t participate in it. He understood people, that we’re all sinners. We aren’t to judge anyone, but are to love them and serve them.
That’s Harwell’s legacy. As Christians, that should be our legacy, too.