Fort Smith School Board votes to end use of Rebel mascot, ‘Dixie’ song

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 323 views 

A tremor from the June 17 tragedy in Charleston, S.C., in which nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church were shot and killed by Dylan Roof has reached Fort Smith. The Fort Smith Public Board of Education voted Tuesday to end use of the Rebel mascot and not use “Dixie” as the school’s fight song.

Roof, 21 and white, has been arrested and his statements and past actions clearly suggest his actions were racially motivated.

The Board’s move is one of many around the country in which racially charged imagery and Confederate symbols are being removed from public spaces or removed from store shelves. Retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is among a growing number of retailers removing Confederate flag merchandise from stores and its e-commerce sites.

Southside High School was formed in 1963 and over the years there have been several challenges to the use of the Rebel mascot. One of those happened in the late 1980s when a school board committee pushed to change the mascot. The effort failed to gain support from a majority of those then on the Board.

But on Tuesday (June 23), the Board made another attempt to change the mascot and fight song.

“Giving great consideration to the continuing impact of perceived symbols of racism on the community, state and nation, the Fort Smith Public School Board convened as a Committee of the Whole tonight and passed a motion to discontinue the use of ‘Dixie as the Southside High School fight song in the 2015-2016 school year and to change the Southside mascot from the Rebel in the 2016-2017 school year,” said a statement from the District.

Continuing, the statement noted: “This motion passed with a 6-0 vote and will be presented to the Board during the regularly scheduled meeting on July 27, 2015. The Rebel and ‘Dixie’ have been used as the Southside High School mascot and fight song since the school opened more than 50 years ago. The Board understands the challenges of changing what has come to be the tradition of the Southside High School community, and will work with the student body and staff over the next year to name a new mascot and fight song for the school.”

The unanimous Board vote does not reflect unanimous consent from alum and others affiliated with the school.

A petition at Change.org was formed by Zack Gramlich shortly after the vote and by 10 p.m. had more than 500 supporters.

“The only reason I believe anyone can see changing this is because of an emotional fueled decision. Not to mention the amount of money required to change everything to a different mascot. It's not only a waste of money, but it irritates people over the entire city,” noted the statement on the petition’s page.

Brad Kohler, a Fort Smith resident and a 1994 graduate of Southside High School, said the Board decision is a “sad day for Fort Smith.”

“It saddens me to see the school board have a closed door knee jerk reaction to the tragic events in South Carolina. The school board didn't put their finger on the pulse of the community before making their decision. I have a daughter that will attend Northside this year and a daughter that will attend (Southside) in 3 years. I showed both of my girls the SHS Johnny reb logo tonight and asked them what that symbol meant. They both answered Southside. It is a tradition and heritage of this town. Today's generation doesn't see it as a negative or racist symbol,” Kohler said.

Ben Pollock, who lives in Fayetteville and is a 1976 Southside graduate, had a different take.

“I graduated from Southside in 1976 and with scholarship, work-study and loans went to Stanford. Four years earlier, Cardinal (the color) succeeded the Indians. Cardinal was Stanford's original team name, replaced by Indians about 1930. The Indian as mascot was dropped in 1972 (think of the era) as racist. Some alumni ranted at us Stanford Band members before ball games to complain about the switch. So I've been through this before,” Pollock said in a note to The City Wire. “Fort Smith Southside needs this change. Sad it didn't happen years ago, but now is pretty good, too. It's merely symbolic, yes, but what we're talking is symbols, after all: mascots, logos, slogans, cheers, fight songs. I am proud of the Fort Smith School Board for moving quickly and decisively.”

Josh Ray, director of the Southside Marching Band, said in a Facebook post that his phone “has been blowing up with the news of new mascots and fight songs.” He allowed The City Wire to use his Facebook comment for this story.

“As a graduate and band director at Southside High School, I would like to make a couple comments on today's changes. I would ask that whatever your opinion, please remember what makes Southside High School great. It's not a song or a mascot. It's not the name of the dance team or the words on the football jersey. It's the tradition of outstanding young people, incredible teachers, and unprecedented leadership. I ask that when we all attend a school event and hear a new fight song, see new jerseys, and hear a different name that we remember we are not celebrating a symbol or tune. Instead we're celebrating young people that represent their school with their effort and the talents they have been given by time and again redefining what a high school student can achieve. Remember that those students would never be there without the support and instruction of teachers and administrators who work everyday to uphold the tradition of excellence at Southside. Symbols change. Mascots change. Fight songs change. However, I believe people will quickly see that the bedrock and the source of years of greatness at SHS lies in the students, teachers, and administrators who constantly work to build upon the tradition of greatness set by those who came before us.”