- Associated Press - Monday, July 27, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A school board in northwestern Arkansas voted Monday to drop a high school’s “Johnny Reb” mascot and “Dixie” fight song after the shooting deaths of nine people inside their historic black church in South Carolina reignited a debate nationwide about the use of symbols of the Confederacy.

Fort Smith school board members have said a recurring discussion about changing the mascot and the Old South anthem used as the fight song reignited after the June shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, an attack authorities have said was racially motivated. A board committee voted less than a week later to send a proposal to drop both symbols.

The community has had mixed reactions to the decision, which the full school board approved in a 7-0 vote on Monday night, according to district spokeswoman Zena Featherston Marshall. Some alumni say the board is making a rash decision that throws out decades of tradition, while others say the district that borders Oklahoma needs to let go of the symbols.

School Board President Deanie Mehl said after the 90 minutes of debate at the public hearing before the vote, the district is ready to move forward.

“This was an issue that I think was very painful for both sides. A large portion of Fort Smith, when they hear the fight song, “Dixie,” or they see Johnny Reb, they see it as a reminder of a phenomenal high school,” Mehl said. “I think there are unfortunately people around the country that hear that song or see that symbol and they do have those negative thoughts.”

The district is now preparing to respond to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Sebastian County Circuit Court that challenges the changes. The lawsuit, brought by Fort Smith resident and mascot supporter Curtis E. Sorrels, alleges that the committee vote on June 23 to send the issue to the full school board is invalid because it violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act notice requirements.

Marshall said Monday morning that the school district disagrees and the board planned to move forward with implementing the changes, despite the lawsuit. The plan board members approved will drop “Dixie” as Southside High School’s fight song this school year and phase out the “Johnny Reb” mascot by the start of the next school year.

The lawsuit filed by Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen alleges that the proposal to change the mascot was not on the June agenda of the school board committee, so the public was not given the opportunity to comment.

“I was on the school board for six years, and from a governmental standpoint, what happened that night was not what I understand to be transparent, good government,” McCutchen said Monday.

McCutchen said after the vote Monday night that there were no plans to drop the lawsuit.

At least five other Arkansas high schools call themselves the Rebels, four of which have a mascot that looks like a version of a Civil War officer. Another high school uses the Southerner as its mascot with a similar depiction.

Pictures of Dylann Roof, the white man charged in the Charleston shooting, surfaced with him holding a Confederate flag. Those pictures have sparked several states to consider removing or renaming symbols of the Confederacy.

McCutchen, a 1981 graduate of the high school, also organized a rally in favor of keeping the Rebel mascot. The rally drew about 150 people in the 99-degree heat Friday night.

“Some of my best friends are black, and we don’t look at it as a racial symbol,” he said.

The district in 1990 eliminated the Confederate flag as an official symbol of the school. Nearly a decade later, Principal Wayne Haver banned students from displaying the flag at official school events.

Haver has said he disagrees with the plan to change the mascot, saying his students associate the symbols more with school pride than with the Civil War.


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