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First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross

With All Due Respect: Coke The Beautiful

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It’s hard to tell which organization made the biggest statement at the Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks or the Coca-Cola bottling company, and frankly, Coke’s story seems far more interesting than the game.

The Seahawks completely bottled up Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Coke managed to outrage so-called nativists with their TV commercial featuring seven sweet little girls each singing snippets of “America the Beautiful” in their–non-English–native tongue, a tribute to diversity and inclusiveness, not to mention Coke.

Almost immediately a backlash to the 60-second, artfully produced ad began manifesting itself in the media including a call to boycott Coke.

The Times-Union’s rants and raves feature carried one of the first responses I saw–which in a few paragraphs–summed up the angry position that would be echoed by such arbiters of Americanism as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck: the song is a tribute to America, they said–to not sing it in English is wrong, in bad taste and, in the pronouncement of former Florida congressman Adam West, “…will set us on “the road to perdition.”

Perdition–a state of final spiritual ruin; loss of the soul. Damnation. An iconic American corporation and a squad of little girls will launch our country toward hell. You think?

What the attacking American-speakers fail to appreciate is that this song, which is so beloved that many people would like to see it replace “The Star-Spangled Banner,” has fairly radical roots.

“America the Beautiful” began life in 1893 as a poem by Katherine Lee Bates, an English teacher at Wellesley College. She had traveled by train to Colorado to teach a short summer session and was inspired by several of the sights along the way.

Visiting the world’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago–dubbed “the white city”–she caught a glimpse of the future in its alabaster structures. Later she saw the wheat fields of Kansas, and then, from atop Pikes Peak, she could see both the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.

The words came: “Thine alabaster cities gleam… spacious skies… amber waves of grain… purple mountain majesties… from sea to shining sea.”

Writing about the coke brouhaha recently, LA Times columnist, author and Occidental College distinguished professor of politics, Peter Dreier, opined that Ms. Bates would be far outside today’s conservative circle–most especially when it comes to inclusively.

She was part of Boston’s progressive reform movement, concerned about unions, housing, immigrants and getting the vote for women.

She was also a lesbian involved in a relationship that in her day became known as a “Boston marriage,” a long-term romantic, cohabiting relationship. Her partner, Katherine Coman, the founder of Wellesley’s economics department, was also a poet. They lived together for 25 years until Coman’s death.

It’s understandable that conservatives or anyone else might not know as much about Katherine Bates as they do Francis Scott Key, but voicing outrage while draping themselves in anti-progressive robes they might first have considered the song’s words.

Wikipedia tracks the song’s evolution from poem to musical icon of American patriotism through several iterations. But through them all–professor Dreier points out, runs, not only a tribute to our country’s beauty and bounty, but a central, aspirational theme of social justice, “a protest” he says, “against gilded age greed.”

Attacking reckless and illegal military operations overseas and suppression of free speech at home, Bates writes: “America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” In another verse she pleads, “God shed his grace on thee, till selfish gain no longer stain, the banner of the free!”

And finally, “and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea,” a desire for social justice to prevail over the quest of fortune. Seems like Katherine Lee Bates could see a long way from Pike’s Peak–all the way to 2014.

I have to believe that, were she alive today, she would recognize how far we’ve come, be disappointed with how far we have to go, and lift a bottle of Coke in appreciation of the youngsters singing her song.

And one more thing about that: Christy, one of the seven girls singing in her native tongue, “not English”, was raising her voice in Pueblo, a culture that dates back at least a thousand years in what is now called “our” country.

Finally, Coke responded to the nativist boycott by doubling down and running a two-minute version of the one-minute Super Bowl ad during the Olympics. Got to love freedom of speech.

Oh beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife. Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.

With all due respect, I’m Jay Solomon.

Jay Solomon is a retired broadcast executive and an occasional contributor to First Coast Connect.