The last line in the 1970 hit movie “M.A.S.H” is simple and emotionally fitting: “That is all.” It now seems a simple and fitting response to a speech Monday night (Aug. 24) by Fort Smith Public Schools Athletic Director Jim Rowland in which the legendary and widely respected coach praised the decision to change the Southside High School mascot and encouraged school officials to move on with new traditions.
The Fort Smith Public School Board voted 7-0 on July 27 to change the Rebel mascot and end use of the “Dixie” fight song that has been associated with the school since it opened in 1963. The school will discontinue use of “Dixie” as the Southside High School fight song in the 2015-2016 school year and drop the Rebel as the Southside mascot in the 2016-2017 school year.
Rowland has been with the school district for 53 years. He’s been the AD since 1991. The Southside High School football field is named after him. He’s also a student of a school district that lost energy on racial divisions and the fight to protect Southern “heritage.”
Rowland was a student at Little Rock Hall High School when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus closed Little Rock’s four public high schools to prevent the federal government from forcing them to integrate the schools as they had the Little Rock Central High School. The schools were closed for the 1958-59 school year, and part of the backlash from that move resulted in desegregationists being elected to the school board and opening the schools and quickly integrating the district.
Rowland knows what real disruption is. And changing a mascot and a fight song isn’t it.
He said Monday during the Fort Smith Public School Board meeting that when he arrived in Fort Smith as a young teacher he was “dismayed” at the imagery of an all white Southside High School. It was Rowland’s way of saying it is clear Fort Smith school officials in 1963 established Southside and its imagery to be a finger in the chest of the growing civil rights movement in the U.S. that was using federal troops to tear down the South’s divisive and deadly Jim Crow society.
He said we may see the Southside traditions as “innocuous,” but they are “hurtful” to minorities and those outside the city.
“Unfortunately symbols matter. How can we tell those students, our friends, that slavery has been over 150 years and they should get over it while we then adopt the symbols that they associate with slavery and display them with a sense of pride?” Rowland said in his almost five-minute speech.
Rowland said changing the traditions tells the world that “we are good good folk, (who) in good faith, want to at last put the Civil War to rest and stop glamorizing its symbols.”
There are some who continue to push back against the unanimous school board vote. Lawsuits have been filed and depositions taken to find something embarrassing or otherwise nefarious to cast doubt on the process. We are also to believe, according to some, that a majority of people in the city object to the change.
But these same people did everything they could to encourage an overwhelming crowd response during the July 27 school board meeting. They wanted the crowd to show the Board that the community did not support a mascot and fight song change. It didn’t work. 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. And the vote was 7-0.
From an anecdotal standpoint, The City Wire has heard from a few of those who opposed the mascot change but believe the vote was lost and it’s time to move on and make the best of the situation.
Let’s hope most of those who continue to fight the decision to change the mascot and fight song will move on and allow a positive experience for students who will begin the process of creating new traditions. It’s likely that will be too much to ask of a few.
Rowland says symbols matter. He says we are good folks. He says we should act in good faith and create a more inclusive environment not only at the school, but with the image the district presents to the outside world.
That is all.