Fort Smith School Board votes to end use of the Rebel mascot, ‘Dixie’ (Updated)

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 185 views 

The Rebel mascot, “Dixie” fight song and other ancillary southern imagery will soon be part of the history of Southside High School. The Fort Smith Public School Board voted 7-0 Monday (July 27) to change the mascot and end use of the “Dixie” fight song that has been associated with the school since it opened in 1963.

Voting to change the mascot followed a lengthy meeting in which more than 220 people packed the school’s service center auditorium and more than 40 people addressed the Board on the issue. The rules limited each person to three minutes, and the public address period lasted about 90 minutes.

Monday’s vote was a culmination of a process that began June 23 when a committee of the School Board voted 6-0 to discontinue use of “Dixie” as the Southside High School fight song in the 2015-2016 school year and to drop the Rebel as the Southside mascot in the 2016-2017 school year.

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

The change was fueled in large part by the national discussion about racial imagery following the tragedy in Charleston, S.C., in which nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church were shot and killed by Dylan Roof.

The Board’s move also 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.

After the vote, School Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl said the issue came down to a 4-3 vote in 1990.

“It’s been a long time coming. … With just one vote different, this could have been changed 25 years ago,” Mehl said. “So, I think this is long overdue.”

Mehl, who thanked the audience for being respectful during the process, said the cordial audience also gives her hope that the community will emerge unified on the issue.

“That really did my heart good that we could disagree … that we could go through this and still be respectful,” Mehl said.

Southside High School Principal Wayne Haver, principal of the school since 1982 and who was critical of the June 23 vote, said after the meeting that “it was a vote I expected.”

“We can put a positive future at Southside on this,” Haver told The City Wire. “Our kids will respond the right way. We will continue to succeed academically and athletically. It will not change Southside High School.”

District Superintendent Dr. Benny Gooden also noted the audience involvement.

“I think you saw a really good cross section of participation, and frankly, on both side,” he said.

Leading opposition to the mascot change has been Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen. He organized a July 24 “Rally for the Rebels” at the Southside football field that attracted at least 150 students, former students and parents. At that event he demanded the Board put the issue up to a district vote.

He also is taking his fight to court. On July 23 he filed a complaint in Sebastian County Circuit Court that alleges the Board committee violated Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act during the process that resulted in the June 23 vote. McCutchen is seeking a hearing within seven days on the matter, and is asking the court to “invalidate” the June 23 vote.

A hearing is set for Wednesday (July 29) before Circuit Court Judge James Cox. It’s unlikely the outcome of the litigation will reverse the Board’s 7-0 vote on Monday.

Of the more than 40 who spoke, at least 25 were for changing the mascot and ending use of “Dixie” as the fight song, and around 15 were against the move. While there was a concern that the public input could get boisterous, the 90-minute was calm with only outbursts of applause.

The loudest applause followed a short speech by William Buckley, who immediately acknowledged that his not from Fort Smith and his only connection is that he married a Southside graduate. He implored the Board to stick with the committee vote and change the mascot. He said it is just a matter of time before the change is made

“If you mess up this vote, my generation will eventually fix it,” Buckley said, which drew the applause.

McCutchen was the first speaker. He call for the Board to allow Southside High School Principal Wayne Haver to form a committee for an “informational gathering process” instead of “rushing to judgment tonight without meaningful public input.” He also said the Board should be focused on teacher advancement and student achievement and not mascot issues.

Christian Parker, an incoming junior at Southside, also spoke in opposition to the change. He said the mascot is a culmination of southern culture and “not a racist symbol.” He also noted that the original American rebels were those who fought against the British. Parker also said students of today don’t attribute the mascot and other imagery with racism.

“My generation does not see color in the way your generation does,” Parker said.

A parent with mixed race children also rose to speak against changing the mascot. She said her child was “comfortable with being a rebel.” She also doubted that business owners have avoided locating in the city or doing business in the area because of the mascot.

Chris Cloud and Wade Gilkey chastised the Board for not making the process more transparent. Gilkey, who also took his time to announce he is running for a Board position in the upcoming Sept. 15 Fort Smith School Board election, said the Board showed a “lack of respect” to all involved for not being more open.

Another speaker, who said he works for ABF Freight, spoke to oppose the change and reminded the Board that “James Dean was called a rebel, not a racist.” He also said the effort to change the mascot is nothing more than a “handful of people (who) got on that politically correct train” after the South Carolina tragedy.

Those speaking for the change included two Fort Smith attorneys who have and are serving as president of the Arkansas Bar Association. Alan Harrison, past president of the Arkansas Bar, praised the Board for their leadership on pushing the issue to a vote. He said for too long the Board has not had the courage to tackle the change.

“Next year won’t be any better … this year is a great time to take it up,” Harrison said.

Eddie Walker Jr., this year’s president of the Arkansas Bar, had three children who graduated from Southside, and it has always been clear to them that “Johnny Reb and Dixie” has a negative symbolism and were symbols adopted “in the heat of the civil rights movement.” He also reminded the Board that in 1969 the University of Arkansas ended its use of “Dixie” as the Razorback fight song.

“It didn’t take long for them to find a new fight song and move on,” Walker said.

Luke Pruitt, a Southside High School graduate, said changing the mascot ends the belief that Johnny Reb and the other symbols are “all just innocent fun.” He said the symbolism “makes our city look unwelcoming to outsiders.” He also challenged those who opposed the change.

“Own up to it if you choose to perpetuate it,” Pruitt said, adding that keeping the mascot sends a message to black entrepreneurs that “we don’t want your business in Fort Smith, we want our tradition.”

School Board member Susan McFerran made the motion for the mascot change and to end use of “Dixie” as the fight song, and the motion was seconded by Rick Wade. All seven Board members quickly raised their hands when an affirmative vote was called.