‘Rally for the Rebels’ set ahead of vote to change Southside mascot

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 154 views 

A “Rally for the Rebels!” event will be held at the Southside High School football stadium just days ahead of a planned Fort Smith School Board vote to change the school’s mascot and fight song.

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, the de facto leader of those opposing the mascot change, and a former member of the Fort Smith School Board, has scheduled the rally for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., July 24 (Friday) at the football field.

“I expect a big turnout, but who knows. Today is the first day, obviously, that I put out the post of the rally,” McCutchen said.

The rally Facebook page invites attendees to “share your memories, stories and experiences of Southside High School on our Facebook page AND at the RALLY FOR THE REBELS!”

“This event is for our entire community. Let’s show the world that life truly is worth living in Fort Smith, Arkansas and that our traditions matter,” noted the invitation.

A committee of the School Board voted 6-0 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 change the Southside mascot from the Rebel 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 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.

The move to change the mascot 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 is expected to vote July 27 on the committee’s recommendation to change the mascot. Fort Smith School Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl has said she is confident the board will officially vote to do away with the “Johnny Reb” themed mascot at Southside High School.

McCutchen told The City Wire he has received an “enormous amount of calls” from people in the District concerned that their voice will not be heard at the July 27 School Board meeting.

“I think people need a forum to express themselves,” McCutchen said Thursday when asked why he organized the rally. “There are people asking questions, like, ‘Why are we doing this in Fort Smith?’ … There are no racial tensions. We’ve always been a community.”

He said he also has heard from teachers who point out that the same School Board pursuing a possible millage increase also is voting to change a mascot that could cost the District up to $500,000. McCutchen is optimistic the rally and other lobbying efforts will cause “school board members who are really thinking” to believe there is a more serious way to address race relations.

“I would like to see the Board consider serious matters, like our children’s education. … I don’t want, and a lot of people don’t want, teachers included, don’t want hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on changing a mascot,” McCutchen said.

He also plans on inviting members and leaders of the African American community to the rally.

At least one African American leader in the city does not plan to attend. Fort Smith City Director André Good said he has already heard McCutchen’s “very inflammatory” remarks on southern “heritage” and other imagery that glorifies a time in history when blacks were property.

“I’m very familiar with Joey’s historical rhetoric. I don’t care to rehash that and rehear it,” Good told The City Wire.

Good said he respects the idea that people are able to gather and talk about their heritage, but doesn’t support retaining the Rebel mascot.

Zena Featherston, director of communications for the Fort Smith Public School District, said School Board members and top school administrators do not plan to attend the rally.