Lawsuit seeks to keep ‘Rebels’ as a nickname at Southside High School

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 240 views 

The latest attempt to oppose the change of the mascot and fight song at Southside High School in Fort Smith hinges upon a difference between an official mascot and a “nickname,” according to an injunction filed Tuesday (Sept. 1) seeking to prevent the Fort Smith Public School District from removing “Rebels” from school grounds and other uses.

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen filed the motion for injunctive relief Tuesday with the Sebastian County Circuit Court. Filing on behalf of Fort Smith resident June Bradshaw, the filing asks the court to block school officials from spending money on a mascot change or blocking use of the “Rebels” nickname. McCutchen notes in the filing that injunctive relief is necessary because the issue is one “on which public input and comment was never solicited or invited and was never voted upon whatsoever by the governing body of the Fort Smith Public Schools.”

The Fort Smith Public School Board voted 7-0 on 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. The 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.

Prior to the July 27 School Board vote on the issue, the Board heard from citizens during a public hearing that last more than 90 minutes. A majority (62%) who spoke were in favor of changing the mascot and fight song.

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.

McCutchen, who vowed prior to the July 27 vote that he would “fight to the bitter end” against a mascot and fight song change, said in the filing that the School Board vote to change the fight song and discontinue use of “Johnny Reb” as the mascot did not include ending use of “Rebels” as a nickname.

“It did not, however, vote to change or prohibit Southside High School from using the name ‘Rebels’ as a nickname for the students at the school or to otherwise compel removal of the name ‘Rebels’ from any property or equipment of Southside High School.”

Continuing, the filing notes: “Defendants have not had any meeting of any type where a vote was had that would affirmatively require removing the name ‘Rebels’ from the premises of Southside High School or from any property utilized by Southside High School.”

McCutchen cited as an example the University of Mississippi where the mascot officially changed to a black bear, but “use of the nickname ‘Rebels’ to refer to athletes or students still continues.”

Fort Smith Public School Superintendent Benny Gooden declined to respond to assertions in McCutchen’s latest legal action.

“With all the legal maneuvers pending, I’m not able to comment at this time,” Gooden said.

Fort Smith Public School Athletic Director Jim Rowland has said the mascot and fight song change is necessary. During an Aug. 24 School Board meeting, he praised the School Board for making the change and encouraged the community to support the change.

“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.”

Link here for a PDF copy of the lawsuit filed Tuesday by McCutchen.