UPDATE: The school board in Fort Smith voted unanimously on Monday night to end or phase out the use of Confederate-linked themes at Southside High School. Around 200 people attended the meeting to lend input to the decision.
MONDAY AFTERNOON: The Johnny Reb and "Dixie," a song some consider to be the Southern national anthem, are up for judgment Monday night by the school board in Fort Smith.
Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl said despite her own personal attachments to the traditions at Forth Smith's Southside High School they need to end.
“I was as guilty as anyone. When I hear ‘Dixie’ I think of the Southside Dixie Belles [drill/cheer team]. I had two daughters that were Dixie Belles. I think of that high kick dance that I’ve seen dozens of times,” said Mehl. “But for some of the people in our community, as well as people outside our community in Arkansas, and people across the nation Johnny Reb and the ‘Dixie’ fight song symbolize something very different.”
Mehl said the racially motivated shooting in South Carolina earlier this month helped push the issue to the forefront but that proposed changes to immediately end or phase out the use of Confederate symbols is not a “knee jerk reaction.”
During her 10 years on the Board of Education in Fort Smith Mehl claimed to have received at least a dozen complaints over the mascot and accompanying imagery every year. A vote was also held in the late 80s that fell one member short of ending some of the Rebel's symbols.
However, Fort Smith appears a divided community. Attorney Joey McCutchen has filed a lawsuit and organized a rally held last Friday at Southside’s football field in opposition. Hundreds in the area had already been driving in caravans and assembling in support of Confederate imagery, as the use of such symbols has been assailed nationwide.
McCutchen told the Fort Smith Times Record the change would take away from a shared history in the community.
“There’s been generation after generation come out of Southside High School,” he said. “‘Dixie’ is part of our heritage. Johnny Reb is part of that school, and that’s going to be taken away if they continue their vote.”
Mehl contended there is community support for the change but said she has also listened to criticisms from parents and students attending other Arkansas schools, who came to Southside High School for competitions.
“I sat with the parents of one child, who went to Central High School in Little Rock, that my daughter knows from college,” Mehl said. “They loved to come to Fort Smith and play Northside High School, they loved our community, but they hated playing Southside High School because of the mascot and the fight song.”
The board meeting takes place Monday night.