George Floyd and Billy Fiske, by Kevin Billings


The death of George Floyd was unconscionable.  I am outraged, as everyone should be, by the conduct of the police in Minneapolis.  The murder by Derek Chauvin was senseless, but even more appalling was that three officers, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, and J Alexander Kueng stood by and did nothing.  They stood by and did nothing!  The outrage that has followed and the response to it should be a wakeup call for all of us.

Before the events in Minneapolis on Memorial Day the Billy Fiske Foundation and its friends were filming video tributes for Billy Fiske’s 109th Birthday.  They were to be a celebration and now I am not in a mood to celebrate.  Our nation is more divided than at anytime since I was in grade school in the 60’s, and the world is facing a pandemic the likes it hasn’t seen in a century.  But, birthdays also provide a time for us to reflect, and as I contemplate the life of Billy Fiske, the lessons of his life stand out today as much as they did when he lived.

The other day my daughter, Alice, printed out flyers about a George Floyd petition and was posting them on telephone poles in our neighbourhood.  One of them said, “Use your privilege for good”.  There is a lot of discussion about privilege; what it means, who has it, and how those who have privilege should use it.  But most of it is talk, and talk is cheap.

Arguably, one of the most privileged people in the world during the 1920’s and 1930’s was young Billy Fiske.  The son of a wealthy New York banking family, he summered in France and wintered in St. Moritz.  At 16 he was the youngest Olympic champion ever. He studied at Cambridge. Won another Olympic Gold Medal. Drove expensive fast cars.  Became a wealthy in his own right, and married the Countess of Warwick.

In 1936 when the Nazi Party was in power in Germany and implementing its policies to systematically eliminate Jews from Germany, Fiske caused quite a stir when, at the time he was considered the greatest bobsled driver in the world, he refused to participate in Hitler’s Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.  He told a friend he would not be part of glorifying Hitler and his anti-Jewish policies.  Saying no to the US Olympic Committee in the 1930’s was not something that was done lightly and could have only been pulled off by someone with Fiske’s privilege.

Likewise, in 1939 when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and began to conquer Europe and the United States stood by and did nothing, Fiske not only used his privilege, but demonstrated his courage, by defying the US Neutrality Act strictly forbidding US citizens from ‘entrance into or service in military or naval forces’ of a country in the war.  Undaunted, he circumvented the ban by using forged Canadian papers and his well-heeled contacts to gain acceptance into the Royal Air Force shortly after the outbreak of war 1939.  All this while another well-privileged American, US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, fled England saying, “I’m for appeasement one thousand percent.” [1]

How we use our privilege and what we have the courage to use our privilege for matters.  Fiske saw an injustice and gave his life fighting that injustice.  He is remembered as a hero of the Battle of Britain and as a symbol of all things that are good about the Special Relationship.  But today, and going forward, we should also remember him for how he viewed his privilege and made it count for those less fortunate.

I was talking about the concept of privilege with the best bartender on the planet, my friend Andra “AJ” Johnson, who is very familiar with Billy Fiske and at a birthday celebration for Billy Fiske at her bar in 2018, she created “The 601 Silencer” in his honour.  AJ is also the founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week in the Washington Metro Area and the author of White Plates, Black Faces — the African-American experience in DC restaurants.  She was telling me, “It’s not enough to simply check your privilege.  When someone tells a racist or bigoted joke, if you don’t call that person out, you’re as complicit as the person the telling the joke.”   Just as important is to look for ways to proactively tear down barriers.  Hosting corporate events, happy hours and parties at black-owned restaurants are ways to start, but more than anything else in every interaction ask yourself if you are treating this person as you would like to be treated.

So, as we remember Billy Fiske today, remember him not only for what he means to the Special Relationship between the US and the UK, but remember him for refusing to stand by and do nothing.  He used his privilege to and gave his life to fight oppression.  Let’s do our part, in ways big and small everyday to honour that legacy.

Kevin Billings
Billy Fiske Foundation

[1] Citizens of London by Lynne Olson; 2010 Random House