In 1893, a 34-year-old English teacher from Massachusetts rode a mule to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. As she stood at the summit, she beheld the vista of the Great Plains spreading out to the east. Behind her the mountainous backbone of the North American continent reached to the north and south beyond her vision. It was the climactic moment in a trip around the United States, which also had included a visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Returning to her hotel room, Bates reflected upon her experiences and noted in a letter to friends that “countries such as England failed because, while they may have been ‘great,’” they had not been “good.” She declared, “Unless we are willing to crown our greatness with goodness, and our bounty with brotherhood, our beloved America may go the same way.”

And so, in a mixture of joy and concern, she began to write the words:

Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain; For purple mountains’ majesty above the fruited plain…

The impression made by the Columbian Exposition was also to be found in her verse:

Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears…

Her belief that social justice ought to be the goal of her country was expressed repeatedly in the stanza:

…And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea!

Katherine Lee Bates was the daughter of a Congregational minister, who died when she was less than a month old. Her brothers went to work to help support the family, and in spite of hardship, Bates attended college and received her B.A. degree in 1880. She earned money to supplement her modest teaching income by writing poems.

By the time Bates took her trip around the country and saw the view from Pikes’ Peak, she and her partner Katherine Coman had been together for eight years, but they were not able to publicly acknowledge that relationship. Coman was head of the Economics Department at Wellesley College, and the author of “The History of Contract Labor in the Hawaiian Islands” and “The Economic History of the Far West.”

As Bates contemplated her country’s destiny in that Colorado hotel room, the “robber barons” had emerged as a major political and economic force, the massacre at Wounded Knee had crushed Native American resistance to the conquest of the Plains, and the Ku Klux Klan ruled the states of the former Confederacy. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its infamous “separate but equal” doctrine, giving a stamp of approval to segregation and Jim Crow for another 60 years. The American labor movement was still reeling from the attacks upon it after the Haymarket events of 1886. And there was a growing cry in ruling circles and the monopoly press for America to “realize its manifest destiny,” extending its empire to Asia and Latin America.

It was against this background that Bates recorded both her love for her country and her protest against the greed and exploitation of capitalism. Her greatest hope was that America would some day be governed more wisely, would become more faithful to the ideals of democracy and equality. Every verse of her poem began with an expression of love, but ended in a prayer that sought forgiveness for America’s flaws:

America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!

Her disdain for capitalism in the age of the “robber barons” is reflected in verse 3:

America! America! God shed his grace on thee Till selfish gain no longer stain The banner of the free!

Her feelings about the country’s elected leadership were plain in verse 4:

America! America! God shed his grace on thee Till nobler men keep once again Thy whiter jubilee!

The poem Bates wrote, of course, was “America the Beautiful.” It was later put to a tune written by the organist of Grace Episcopal church in Newark, N.J.

It is little known that America’s best-loved song was written by a woman who was a feminist, a lesbian, a Christian socialist, and an ardent anti-imperialist. Katherine Lee Bates was a pioneer, and a progressive advocate of social justice. And she was a patriot in the best sense of the word. She loved the land and the people of her birth, but she was critical of its weaknesses, and fought to make it a better, more just place.

“America the Beautiful” commands its listeners to open their eyes and ears to the injustices and corruption of capitalism. It is a song of both love and criticism. And it makes a distinction between the country we live in, and the wealthy and corrupt elite that rules it.

So, as we approach Election Day 2004, sing “America the Beautiful” with your friends and families. Sing all the verses. Sing them clearly so everyone can hear them. It is not just another sentimental, empty expression of unthinking patriotism. It is a call to struggle. And it’s ours.

Tim Yeager is financial secretary/treasurer of UAW Local 2320. He can be reached at rtyeager@att.net.

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CONTRIBUTOR

Tim Yeager
Tim Yeager

Long time labor organizer, civil rights and peace activist in the U.S., Rev. Tim Yeager is now Team Vicar, St George's, Westcombe Park, London, U.K.

 

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