Editor’s note: A video of the meeting has been posted at the end of this story.
Emotions ran high Monday night (May 23) at the Fort Smith Public School Board meeting, with an overwhelming majority expressing through tears and anger their displeasure at Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen over his efforts to reverse a mascot change at Southside High School.
A packed, if not overflowing, board meeting room had assembled for what was expected to be a speech from McCutchen to reassert his challenge to the mascot change and his renewed promise to use the September school board election cycle to reverse the mascot change. McCutchen hired an airplane to fly a banner over the recent Southside High School graduation. The banner noted, “Rebels forever. Remember in September.” The September reference is about the upcoming board election in which McCutchen and his supporters seek to change the Board membership and change the mascot back to the Rebel.
The controversial and often emotional process to change the mascot began in June 2015 with a School Board committee vote. The Fort Smith Public School Board then voted 7-0 on July 27, 2015, 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 Board voted 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.
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.
Monday’s meeting took an unexpected turn when Jim Rowland, the legendary athletic director at Fort Smith Public Schools, stepped up to the microphone during the citizen forum portion.
Prior to Rowland’s short speech, McCutchen said the decision to end use of the mascot was hypocritical because many historic figures that remain a part of the public school district – including Albert Pike and President Abraham Lincoln – espoused what are now considered racist beliefs.
McCutchen has been the persistent and vocal leader of the effort to reverse the mascot decision. He recently noted on his Facebook page: “I met with Atlhetic Director Jim Rowland personally last week. My message was simple: The name Rebels is not racist. If the Rebel name is racist, then Jim Rowland is racist because he allowed the Rebel name to be used for 45 years as Southside High School Head Coach, SHS Assistant Principal, and Athletic Director. I know that Jim Rowland is not a racist, I know I am not a racist and I know thousands of Fort smith residents supporting the Rebel name are not racists.”
Rowland took exception to McCutchen’s tactics, saying an individual with “questionable motives” has used “half truths and outright lies” to “incite a small number of followers.” It’s not the first time Rowland has fired off against McCutchen on the issue. In August 2015, Rowland said during a school board meeting that some 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 during the August 2015 meeting.
On Monday Rowland told the crowd that Southside students have been “magnificent in their attitude” about the mascot change, but it has been a few adults who have worked to divide the community on the issue.
“Shame on us if that happens,” Rowland said of the attempt to reverse the mascot decision.
An emotional Rowland then called on Southside High School head football coach Jeff Williams to read a statement. The statement Williams read was from Rowland announcing his retirement from the job he had held since 1991. Gasps and crying were heard as Williams, who fought back tears, read the statement. The resignation is effective June 30.
“That is the second most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life … besides speaking at my father’s funeral,” Williams told the crowd when he finished reading the statement.
Southside High School Principal Wayne Haver followed the Rowland resignation announcement. He was even more direct, if not angry, in his comments toward McCutchen. He alleged that McCutchen has twisted the issue to boost his “vendetta” against those who supported the mascot change.
“He doesn’t want to find out the facts,” Haver said, adding that McCutchen’s agenda is simply to “get rid of the Maverick mascot and go back to the Rebel.”
Haver also issued told those in the crowd that McCutchen will be successful if they don’t push back against the effort to reverse the mascot change.
“This city better wise up and this board better wise up and put a stop to this,” Haver said.
Board member Wade Gilkey, a supporter of bringing back the Rebel mascot, tried to rebut Haver, but the crowd shouted him down. Board President Deanie Mehl reminded Gilkey that the citizen forum is not for Board members to challenge speakers.
‘DON’T BURN LONG’
What followed was numerous short speeches from school and former school coaches, faculty and citizens all praising Rowland and criticizing the effort to reverse the mascot change.
Southside High School assistant principal Travis Biggs said Rowland is known as a man of “character and integrity” who “stands for what’s right.” Northside High School coach Mike Falluer implored the crowd to get active and “not let one person tear down the community.” Coach Eric Burnett, who could hardly speak through his emotion, questioned the integrity of someone who could cause Rowland to retire.
“I don’t understand … (Rowland) does everything right, never does anything wrong … for someone to attack him. … I don’t understand.”
Dalton Person, a 2009 Southside graduate who recently completed law school, said those who support the Rebel mascot will be on the wrong side of history.
“Joey, I hope your heart changes some day,” Person said, adding later, “Shame on you for bringing us to this point as a community.”
Southside history teacher Tadd Stewart said McCutchen is using the same tactics as U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy, who in the early 1950s used the “Red Scare” to ruin or attempt to ruin the business and political careers of anyone he thought was a homosexual or had affiliated in any way with a communist organization. Stewart said McCutchen is a similar “demagogue” who uses “innuendos and half truths” to push his position. Of such demagogues, Stewart said “they do burn bright, but they don’t burn long.”
But McCutchen remained defiant. Leaving the room when the meeting was adjourned he told a supporter, “We’re not finished.”
When pressed for a statement, McCutchen told Talk Business & Politics: “My statement is, is like every person in here Coach Rowland was my mentor and we were as close as any two people could be. So this isn’t about Coach Rowland, it’s about the issues. And we’re going to continue to talk issues. … We will continue forward, irrespective of my love for Coach Rowland. I’ll always love Coach Rowland, always have. … He hasn’t said that I caused his resignation, and quite frankly that would be a shock if that were the case. … Sometimes this is what needs to take place to push our country forward, because these issues need to be talked in a non-emotional, very objective fashion, and we’ll get to do that. And the citizens will get to speak.”
McCutchen also said he is not pushing any candidate in the September school board election.