- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) - Even though two school board members who took part in a unanimous vote to remove controversial symbols at Southside High School lost re-election bids last week, a panel set up to choose the western Arkansas school’s new mascot plans to move forward with its work this week.

Principal Wayne Haver said that even with part of the board turning over, he expects that the Southside Rebels will become a thing of history. The school band has already ditched “Dixie” for a rousing version of “The Wabash Cannonball” and the Confederate battle flag was mothballed years ago. The new panel plans to meet Monday to begin vetting new mascot ideas left in a cardboard suggestion box in the school office.

“As far as I know we’re changing,” said Haver, the chairman on the mascot committee. “The board has directed it and my job is to follow the direction of the school board.”

Prompted by the shootings of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, this summer, board members gathered to discuss whether a school formed during the 1960s civil rights movement should keep its Southern symbols.

They voted 7-0 to change the fight song immediately and change its mascot by next year.

“I knew the night we cast the vote that we had thrown the rock into the waters and there would be ripples,” said Wyman R. “Rick” Wade Jr., who lost by greater than a 2-1 margin. “In the 21 years that I was on the board, that was the proudest vote that I had cast.”

Wade Gilkey, who defeated a first-term board member by a 3-1 margin in another contested election last Tuesday, said the mascot fight was part of a broader disconnect between the board and voters on charter schools and ensuring Fort Smith graduates don’t feel the need to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, or the Kansas City area or Little Rock to find jobs.

Restoring the Rebels mascot wasn’t a goal, he said.

“It’s a cartoon. I can’t bring it back. There’s not really any way I can do that,” said Gilkey, a Southside graduate. “It is not my desire to prolong this. We need to move on. We’ve got important stuff to be doing.”

Bill Hanesworth, who defeated Wade, said there is still some debate over whether the board intended to retire just the cartoon mascot depicting a Southern general or the entire name Rebels. In 2010, Ole Miss kept the Rebels name but replaced its caricature of a general with a brown bear.

“This needs to be resolved so we can move forward with the broader issues facing our school system,” he said in a message from his vacation in Florida.

David B. McLennan, a visiting professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, said Fort Smith school patrons balked at the idea that events from so far away could influence policy in a frontier town on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.

“Had Charleston not happened, no one would have mentioned the Rebels nickname,” McLennan said. “And any candidates who would run after voting to strip the name, they’d be in danger.”

Wade said he didn’t see a way for the board to change its mind.

“‘Dixie’ has already been done away with and they’re working on a new mascot. For a majority of the board to reverse what we’ve been done, it would be very chaotic,” said Wade, a Florida State graduate whose office is adorned with Seminoles gear.

Southside’s main rival, Northside High School, are the Grizzlies, meaning the Rebels likely won’t change to “Salmon,” a grizzly bear’s favorite food. It’s not likely Southside will join the long list of Arkansas schools known as Eagles or Tigers or Wildcats.

Suggestions include Patriots, Mavericks, Royals and Outlaws, and Haver smiles as he talks about a retired nickname from a school up the highway.

“Everytime somebody asks me ‘What’s your choice?’ I say, ‘Since Winslow is now consolidated with Greenland, ‘Squirrels’ is available.’”

___

This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Bill Hanesworth’s last name, which had been misspelled as Haynesworth.

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