‘Rally for the Rebels’ draws emotional pleas, criticism of Rebel flag use

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 347 views 

Speaking to at least 150 people who braved the Friday night (July 24) heat, Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen said he would fight “to the bitter end” an effort to change the Rebel mascot and imagery at Southside High School. He also demanded the Fort Smith Public School Board put the issue up for a vote of the people.

The “Rally for the Rebels” crowd, which included a few young men and women waving the stars and bars of the Rebel flag, gathered near the Southside High School football stadium. The event began at 6:30 p.m., with McCutchen saying he wanted the event to be a “positive experience that brings us all together.” He said the students he graduated with and Southside students today don’t see the mascot “as a racial symbol.”

“I think we’re going to be Southside Rebels forever,” McCutchen said, with the audience erupting in applause.

A committee of the School Board voted 6-0 – McCutchen says it was a 5-0 vote – in a June 23 meeting 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.

“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,” noted a statement from the District after the June 23 committee vote.

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

After reading a long list of Southside academic and athletic accolades and accomplishments, McCutchen continued with his theme that Southside students aren’t racists and have created over the years “a positive Rebel experience.”

He also said Southside has a history of producing “citizens who believe in equality” and “always accepted all races.” However, it took a 1965 Arkansas Supreme Court decision to force immediate integration of Southside High School, and the first black student at Southside entered the school in 1974, a full 20 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in which the U.S. Supreme Court said school segregation was unconstitutional.

McCutchen blamed the School Board for their June 23 action that brought “undeserved and unnecessary scrutiny” on the city and school. He also said the Board should tell taxpayers how much a mascot change will cost before they take a vote.

McCutchen also is taking his fight to court. On Thursday 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.

“Based on information and belief, on Monday, June 22, 2015, shortly before the regularly scheduled Board meeting, the members of the Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education met informally and discussed and deliberated on the subject of prohibiting the use of the song Dixie as the Southside High School fight song and changing the Southside High School mascot from the Rebel. A secret informal caucus can result in a consensus being reached on a given issue, thus rendering the formal meeting held before the public a mere charade,” McCutchen noted in his eight-page filing with the Sebastian County Circuit Court.

McCutchen is seeking a hearing within seven days on the matter, and is asking the court to “invalidate” the June 23 vote.

Several members of the audience spoke in support of keeping the mascot and the “Dixie” fight song. Bobby Ross, a 1967 graduate, said is upset because none of the School Board members are Southside graduates.

“How do they feel qualified to make a decision like this?” Ross said, with the crowd applauding in response.

Zena Featherston, spokeswoman for the Fort Smith Public School District, said it is true that no Board member is a Southside graduate. She said several of them did have children graduate from the school system and Southside.

Viola Shelby, who graduated in 1970 as Viola Rome, became emotional in her address. She said all her memories of Southside are built around the traditions of the Rebel mascot and her history at the school will be “tarnished” if the Board votes to change the mascot.

“They are so wrong on taking it away from us,” Shelby said, fighting back tears.

One parent said she would not allow her children to attend Southside if the mascot is changed.

Greg Matlock, a 1985 Southside graduate, spoke to dispel what he said was a rumor that the effort to change the mascot began during a recent 1985 class reunion. He said a letter was written by one member of the class asking for a mascot change, but said members of the class overwhelmingly oppose the change.

Not everyone at the rally was opposed to the mascot change. Lucious Arter, an African American who had a son graduate Southside in 1992, said all the great experiences he heard were about the people and not a mascot.

“The tradition is the school … it’s these great teachers and students,” Arter said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with a mascot. … I think we go our issues mixed up.”

He also pointed to those with Rebel flags, saying the flag is not about Southside and the only good place for the flag is “in an archive.” That comment drew an angry response from the crowd. At least twice McCutchen had to intervene and ask the audience to be quiet and let Arter continue.

After several more speakers, McCutchen wrapped up the event by reading and singing the “Dixie” fight song.

In an interview after the event, Arter told The City Wire he also is frustrated at those who see no harm in the “Dixie” fight song.

“At lot of that song is good, but it starts with being in the land of cotton. … Who do they think was out there picking that cotton?” Arter said. “That’s sort of where it lingers with me … with that history. So why create a problem?”