To a town divided: The history of the Southside Rebel

by Luke Pruitt (wlukepruitt@gmail.com) 565 views 

My earliest memories of Southside Rebel Pride came when I was in grade school, watching my two older brothers play football for the Rebels. My oldest brother played on the offensive line, and when he was a senior my middle brother became the starting quarterback as a junior.

I idolized the players and loved the team. Coach Lunney would let me stand on the sidelines, and I would sprint to midfield to retrieve the tee after kickoffs. I remember losing to Northside the year that Keniko Logan made a circus catch in the final moments of the game for the go ahead touchdown. I remember the feeling of redemption when we beat them the next year. I remember waiting all year for football season, and I remember the conference games, when a chill would start to creep into the fall wind, and the playoff games, standing in the bitter cold, singing “Dixie” with red cheeks and hardened noses. These memories are deep in my roots, and the tradition of Rebel pride is a part of my youth that I will always cherish.

Tradition can be a complex thing, though, and as our nation becomes further divided over Confederate symbolism and its place in our history, so does our town over the tradition of the Southside Rebel. Anyone on social media has been bombarded with articles claiming various versions of the “history” of Confederate symbolism, and the ever-sensitive issue of the black- white relationship in America has yet again digressed into a volatile and incommunicable debate about who or what is or isn’t racist, the differences between a racist individual and racism as a societal function, and how or if Confederate symbolism that is 150 years old fits into the discussion.

Our debate over the School Board decision to change the Rebel mascot is certainly not isolated. Sure, it hits close to home, but Confederate symbolism, like the Confederacy itself, has always been a source of unification among all southern states when they feel their individual liberty is being threatened, be it by liberal America or the federal government.

Certainly that was the case of the Civil War. While we now agree that slavery is an evil institution, and our practice of it leaves a scar on the history of a great nation, there is an underlying principle that Southerners have always seen in Confederate symbolism – the idea that liberty is not something given or taken away by a government, but is born into mankind.

That is at least part of the reason Confederate soldiers and civilians, whose descendants are our neighbors, our soldiers, and our fellow Americans, fought bravely to defend their homes when the Union invaded.

But symbolism, like tradition, can be complex as well, and to only look at Confederate symbolism in the context of the Civil War is insufficient. Symbols can take on new meaning and be used to unify people for different causes over time. This is what began happening in the South after the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v The Board of Education ruling in 1954, and was reaching a height in September of 1963 as Southside High School held its first days of classes, and its students elected the Rebel mascot.

Immediately after the high court ruling in May of 1954, there was southern backlash and resistance in the south. Georgia was immediately the most vocal southern state, with Gov. Herman Talmadge responding to the ruling by saying, “The court has thrown down the gauntlet before those who believe the Constitution means what it says by this reversal of the rights of individual states to regulate their own internal affairs.” The Fort Smith newspaper ran an article the day following the ruling headlined, “Publicly Regulated Private Schools Seen As One Alternative,” naming Gov. Talmadge as one of numerous southern leaders seeking new alternatives to their school systems to resist integration.

Similarly, southern leaders in the legal system saw the ruling not only as an offense against states rights, but a disgrace to the legal system itself. In May 1955, as the nation awaited another ruling by the court on how Brown v Board would be implemented, the Arkansas Bar Association held its annual convention in Hot Springs, where Texas Attorney General John Ben Sheppard was invited to speak. The Fort Smith paper reports the Attorney General accusing the high court of “riding with boots and spurs across 150 years of legal precedent and social tradition,” and citing federal encroachment of states rights. Sheppard declared: “When the court junks a line of cases, it is demoralizing to the legal profession, whose every legal concept must be based on precedent.”

After the court ruled to leave the task of integrating public schools up to local officials and local federal courts without a particular timeline, but “as soon as practicable,” the Fort Smith Public School Board began drafting a plan to integrate. In January 1956, Fort Smith School Board President Frank Beckmen began correspondence with Fort Smith lawyer Owen Pierce, seeking legal assistance in drafting an integration policy in collaboration with Bruce Shaw, the School Board’s independent legal counsel. Mr. Beckmen notes in his request that “If a draft of policy were presented which in the opinion of counsel complied with the law, yet was formulated such that established patterns would be disturbed as little as possible, I feel the Board might be able to agree upon that policy and adopt it as the program to be followed.”

In April 1956, Pierce responds to Beckmen’s request with a letter including the proposed policy. In the letter introducing the policy, Mr. Pierce notes that: “What follows in this letter does not necessarily represent my personal views nor those of Mr. Shaw on how racial problems in our schools should be handled. Sometimes one’s personal views must yield to other considerations. Since the Supreme Court has seen fit to hand down decisions on segregation in our schools, we should in my opinion attempt in good faith to comply with the Constitutional requirements as stated by the Court although this involves significant changes and some things we might not choose if we had full freedom of choice.

“In our consideration of this matter Mr. Shaw and I have been aware of the following factors among others: …

“(2) We assume most of the patrons of the District desire that our local schools continue as public schools, and would oppose a change to some form of private ownership of the schools such as is being considered elsewhere.

“(3) We believe most of the patrons of the District expect the Board to operate our schools according to law. There are some who have encouraged the Board to continue to operate public schools, but in disregard of the Supreme Court decisions, but we feel this would be an unwise course of action, particularly for a school district like ours which purports to train its pupils in good citizenship. …

“(5) We assume the board will not be able to solve this problem to the complete satisfaction of all patrons, but we feel that most people in the Fort Smith area will sincerely cooperate in carrying out lawful policies which are as consistent as possible with established patterns.”

While it is unclear what is meant by “established patterns”, and what Pierce and Shaw might have chosen were they to have “full freedom of choice,” it seems clear that southern leaders in the legal profession and in state government office saw integration as at least a nuisance, and at worst a disgrace worth resisting, whether by circumvention of legal language or militant force, as it would be seen in the coming years.

Not all lawyers in the South shared the mentality, however, and not all lawyers in the South supported the integration policy of the Fort Smith School Board. The Policy, to be voted on by the board in a July 1956 Board meeting, was structured so that: “Children entering the first grade in September, 1957… would be enrolled for purposes of instruction without regard to race or color. Children thereafter entering the first grade each successive year would likewise be enrolled without regard to race or color, each successive class remaining on an integrated basis as it progresses through the 12 grades, with a view to attaining full integration in the Fort Smith schools at the earliest practicable time. Provided:

“(a.) In order to avoid overtaxed or surplus facilities in given schools, the school administration should be authorized to advance or delay this procedure at any point as much as 3 years, and

“(b.) no pupil whose race or color is in the minority in a given school should be required to attend that school. he should be allowed, but not required, to attend the school nearest his home in which his race or color predominates.”

Prior to the vote, a statement from NAACP lawyer U.S. Tate was read by local NAACP Vice President Thomas Davis, stating that: “The 12 year plan of the Fort Smith Board of Education is not acceptable. Full integration is all that we are interested in. If the Board would integrate the first eight grades the first year, and the High Schools the following year, we may have some basis for discussion.”

When Davis finished reading the statement, a motion was made and seconded, and the Board voted unanimously to adopt the integration policy as proposed by Pierce and Shaw.

Two weeks prior to this Board vote, on July 1, 1956, A law took effect in Georgia adopting a new state flag to incorporate the “Stars and Bars” flag of the confederacy. The Fort Smith policy took effect in September 1957, the same month the Arkansas Governor ordered the Arkansas National Guard to Little Rock Central High School to block nine black students from attending.

After President Eisenhower federalized the guard and admitted the students, Faubus continued the resistance that resulted in “The Lost Year” in which Faubus closed all Little Rock High Schools in order to fight integration for the 58-59 school year. As the lost year came to an end and Faubus would be ordered to open Little Rock schools back up to integration, a Confederate flag is seen waving behind Faubus as he spoke at a rally at the state capitol in August 1959.

While Fort Smith managed to implement it’s integration policy without much conflict, tension was building across the nation. Martin luther King Jr.,  was arrested in Atlanta on Oct. 19, 1960 during a sit-in demonstration to test desegregation in public places. Days later, Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy called Corretta Scott King to express concern, and Oct. 27, Robert F. Kennedy intervenes, calling Judge Oscar Mitchell and Georgia Gov. S. Ernest Vandiver, resulting in King’s release from prison. While the political gamble paid off when Kennedy won the Presidential election the following month, it also designated the Democratic party as the party of Civil Rights, further fueling the resistance of the mostly Democratic southern leaders

1961 began with integration riots at the University of Georgia just weeks before Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States, and in March the President signed executive order 10925 that would “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

The order also established the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity Employment, and when the Committee held it’s first official meeting on April 11, South Carolina raised the Confederate flag atop it’s capital building to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Civil War, and remained at the capital until just weeks ago.

In May 1961, a group known as the Freedom Riders began testing integration enforcement on public buses, and on May 21, President Kennedy ordered hundreds of armed U.S. Marshals to Alabama, where buses in Aniston and Birmingham carrying Freedom Riders were destroyed by a mob of whites, who slashed the tires of the bus and set them to flames. When the Freedom Riders escaped the bus, they were beaten by the mob. The violence resulted in national exposure for the Freedom Riders, however, and the rides continued through the summer. On July 10, 1961, five Freedom Riders stopped in Little Rock en route to New Orleans from Saint Louis. The Riders, not knowing that the bus route had been printed in the Little Rock paper, were met by a confrontational crowd of white people. Rather than disburse the crowd, the police arrested the five travelers.

As lines were being drawn ever firmer between southern leaders and the federal government in 1961, lines were being drawn in Fort Smith too, as the School Board realigned boundaries to compensate for enrollment increases and in preparation of the new south Fort Smith high school that was being constructed. In this summer of great national divide, it was on July 31 that the former Fort Smith High School was renamed Northside High School, and noting that “the city is growing and we feel a sectional name is in order…”, the Fort Smith School Board unanimously gave Southside High School it’s official name.

While integration riots continued through 1962, most notably at the University of Mississippi, where the confederate flag had long been flying, it was 1963 that proved to be the year that would change the Civil Rights movement, and the country, forever.

George Wallace was inaugurated as Alabama’s new Governor in January, and he firmly stated in his inauguration address: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Wallace threatened continuously to block any attempt at integration in Alabama, and when Robert Kennedy planned to visit the governor in April to discuss the issue, Wallace ordered the Confederate flag to be raised over the capitol the day before Kennedy arrived, where it would remain flying until 1992.

Still, the Kennedy Administration seemed to be gaining ground, and the U.S. Supreme Court was growing impatient. As Robert Kennedy visited with southern theater owners on May 27 to encourage voluntary integration, the Supreme Court warned that it would tolerate no more delays in integration of schools, saying that desegregation plans that might have been acceptable eight years ago may not be acceptable now. In addition to schools, the high court ruled also that the “all deliberate speed” guideline does not permit any further delay in integrating parks and other recreational facilities in Memphis.

In Arkansas, after L.C. Bates, a field secretary for the NAACP, had been refused service in the Arkansas Capitol cafeteria and threatened demonstrations, Gov. Orval Faubus decided on May 29 that the racial policy in the Arkansas Capitol cafeteria would be left up to the proprietor who ran the cafeteria. The proprietor, who leased the cafeteria from the state, decided that Bates could eat in the kitchen, but not in the dining hall with white patrons.

On June 11, George Wallace made good on his repeated promises to block the doorway to the University of Alabama, which prompted President Kennedy to send the National Guard to protect the students, and later that day give an historical speech in which he announced that he would introduce a civil rights bill to Congress. The day after Wallace retreated his symbolic stance against the guard for the sake of keeping order in Alabama, NAACP leader Medger Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Miss.

In Fort Smith, less than two weeks after President Kennedy’s speech, the parents of four Lincoln High School students requested that their children be transferred to Northside High School, stating: “We desire to expose our son (or daughter or children) to an integrated education and further desire to have our son to be the recipient o the advantages to be derived from having attended an integrated school system.” The Board denied the request, stating that the policy adopted in 1957 would continue.

In August, Martin Luther King Jr., would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech at the march on Washington, just one week before Southside High School was set to open it’s doors. Headlines in the Fort Smith paper on the march read “March on Washington Step Backward for U.S.”, and “Is March Only Beginning of Negro ‘Revolution?’”.

In September, while Southside High School held its first week of classes and prepared for its first football game without having chosen a mascot, Alabama Gov. George Wallace once again chose to fight desegregation, postponing school for the first week. On September 3, the Fort Smith paper, on a page entitled “Pictures in the News” published a photo of Alabama students celebrating Wallace’s postponement in his newest symbolic fight against desegregation. The caption in the Fort Smith paper read: “Cause to Celebrate: A group of high schoolers wave confederate flag and sing Dixie as they whoop it up on a porch across the street from Tuskogee, Ala. High School which was scheduled to open on an integrated basis Monday. The kids had just gotten word that Gov. George Wallace ordered a one week postponement. School officials broke up the celebration promptly.”

The next day, the Southside student body voted on a mascot, and the Southside Rebels played their first football game that Friday. As crowds flew the flag that fall to cheer on the Rebels, a crowd of protestors flew the flag in Dallas to greet President Kennedy at Love Field on Nov. 22.

The Lincoln High School students who had requested to transfer to Northside High School in June filed a suit against the Fort Smith Public School Board that went before the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1965, where the high court deemed the integration policy unconstitutional, demanding transfer of the students and immediate integration. While black students began attending Northside in 1966, no black student would wave the Confederate flag and sing Dixie at Southside until 1974.

Symbolism is a powerful thing. It can instill a great sense of joy and pride in us, and it can fill us with disgust.

Perhaps, to us as individuals, we can accept the good or the bad aspects of Confederate symbolism while we ignore the other. But as a country, and as a city, we must acknowledge both when deciding what place Confederate symbolism has in our government buildings and schools.

For all of us who hold the Rebel tradition close to our hearts, this is a time in which we must reflect on the history of that tradition, the history of our school, and ask ourselves what our “Rebel Pride,” while innocent in nature to us as individuals, represents in the history of the South, the country, and the black-white relationship in America.

As we say goodbye to our mascot over the next year, I am angered, not because I feel something is being taken away from me, but because generations of Southside students have been sold the idea that if we view our mascot as just an innocent symbol of school pride, we can ignore the roots from which that pride has grown, and isolate ourselves from its place in history.

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