Fort Smith attorney pushes back against ending use of Rebel mascot

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 139 views 

Fort Smith attorney and former Fort Smith Public School Board member Joey McCutchen is pushing back against the effort to change the Southside High School mascot. He says ending use of the Rebel mascot “will not do anything to improve race relations.”

A committee of the Fort Smith Public School Board on June 23 voted 6-0 to end use of the Rebel mascot and not use “Dixie” as the school’s fight song. The push for a mascot change 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.

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.

The Board is expected to vote July 27 on the committee’s recommendation to change the mascot.

McCutchen served on the School Board for six years during the 1990s. He’s an owner in the Fort Smith-based law firm of McCutchen Buckley, is a Southside High graduate and has a daughter who is a member of the Dixie Belle drill team at Southside. On Thursday (July 2) he filed a two-page Freedom of Information Act request for 11 sets of documents related to the Board’s action on the mascot change.

In an interview with The City Wire, McCutchen says the Board did not follow the law in discussing and voting on the issue. He said two Board members told him that discussions were held about the issue prior to the June 23 meeting. McCutchen visited with school officials on June 24 to protest the action.

“We’re entitled to see the entire spectrum of the process, and not just the final results,” McCutchen said.

School Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl said the June 23 action is not a violation of the law. She said it was a “preliminary vote,” with the public discussion and public vote set for July 27. Mehl said the Board is “expanding the citizen participation” at the July 27 meeting by not limiting total topic discussion to 15 minutes. Anyone who wants to address the issue may speak, although each speaker has a three-minute limit.

McCutchen wants more than an apology or any legal remedies available if it is ruled the Board did violate Arkansas’ public meeting laws. His goal is to convince the Board to keep the mascot and “retain our Southern heritage.”

“I’m going to do everything I can to change their minds,” McCutchen said.

He sees a distinction between heritage and race. He said he has worked with many African-American boys and men over the years to provide them personal help and legal advice. McCutchen said he knows the type of discrimination they face.

“I’ve given a lot of time and effort to mentoring African-American youngsters through the years. … Changing the mascot will not do anything to improve race relations,” he said.

He plans on organizing in the near future a community “race relations conference” in Fort Smith to talk about the “real” issues of race and discrimination.

“There are deeper issues that need to be looked at. I think you cheapen the important topic of racism … by just taking away the mascot,” McCutchen said.

In a June 24 interview with The City Wire, Mehl said she recognizes the tradition and heritage of the mascot but said such traditions and heritage don’t translate to a bigger world.

“Unfortunately, when we get outside the River Valley, Dixie and Johnny Reb have a very different connotation … and that’s not what Fort Smith is,” Mehl said. “I don’t think Fort Smith is a community that endorses prejudice.”