Equity & Diversity

Debate Over ‘Rebel’ Mascot, Confederate Symbols Roils Arkansas School District

By Corey Mitchell — May 25, 2016 2 min read
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A debate over Confederate symbols and history in a western Arkansas school system has led to the resignation of a veteran athletic director and the ouster of two longtime school board members.

Jim Rowland, athletic director of the 14,000-student Forth Smith schools, resigned this week amidst growing controversy related to the mascot at a city high school. Rowland supported the change.

My colleague, Bryan Toporek, wrote about the debate last summer when the school board voted unanimously to “drop Southside High School’s “Dixie” fight song and change its “Rebel” mascot.” In the time since, two board members who backed the change were ousted in the September school election, and the issue remains divisive, ArkansasOnline.com reports.

Widespread concern that Confederate symbols fostered racism has sparked similar changes in school districts around the country.

Controversy over the appearance of the Confederate flag may have peaked last summer after a mass shooting that left nine people dead at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015, former Education Week intern Tiara Beatty wrote last summer. Dylann Roof, who is accused of killing the churchgoers in the racially motivated attack, had posed in photos with the Confederate flag.

In Fort Smith, opponents of the mascot change are pushing back hard against the change.

Reports from several media organizations indicate that Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, a 1981 Southside High graduate, is leading the effort to reinstate the “Rebel” mascot there. According to 4029tv.com, McCutchen supports efforts to elect new board members who will bring back both the Rebel mascot and Dixie fight song.

ArkansasOnline.com reported that the Fort Smith school board also decided to delay a planned school tax election to “gain voters’ support” after the decision last year to change the mascot and dump the fight song.

Rowland, a school district employee for 53 years, said the debate shifted in a direction he was uncomfortable with, and chose to resign at Monday’s school board meeting. He had served as athletic director for the past 25 years.

“I don’t want to make myself too important for sure, because I’m not. But my goal tonight was to stop this controversy. This issue has been about a symbol, a mascot, and we’re much, much more important than that,” Rowland said during the meeting, according to the Fort Smith Times Record.

“In all of my years as a coach and as an administrator, I’ve never seen such a poisonous atmosphere as there is in our school system at this time.”

Photo Credit: A sign outside Southside High School in Fort Smith, Ark., last year proclaiming the school to be “Home of the Rebels.” --Kelly P. Kissel/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.