On Sunday, the New York Times reported on the "Colonel Reb" mascot controversy at the University of Mississippi, a.k.a. "Ole Miss."
Colonel Reb — a caricature of a white antebellum Southern plantation owner that served as the school's mascot for 24 years — was technically banned by the school's administration in 2003. The school is currently without a mascot, and there is a movement among some to bring Colonel Reb back. Some of the people who want to bring it back are members of an alumni-founded organization called the Colonel Reb Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the mascot. Supporters of Colonel Reb rely on their own version of history to support their argument that Colonel Reb is the only mascot that will ever be suitable for the university.
Ole Miss's long history with Confederate symbols is complex and related to the university's role as the protector of Southern "values," including racism and white supremacy.
The Colonel Reb Foundation's founder is quoted in the New York Times article as saying "little girls in Mississippi [think Colonel Reb is] their grandfather." However, almost 40 percent of Mississippi's population is African-American. Anyone who has seen the mascot knows that none of Mississippi's African-American population thinks they are related to Colonel Reb.
The Colonel Reb Foundation's defense of the mascot in the "history" section of their website is another version of the same story told by some white Southerners in defense of the continued use of Confederate symbols, claiming they are about history and heritage, not hate. But the history of Mississippi and its flagship university is partially about hate.
The Ole Miss football team was previously known as "The Flood." In the 1930's, the school voted on changing the name to the Rebels. A close second was the "Ole Massas." (This was in line with the school's nickname, Ole Miss, which is the slave term for the wife of a plantation owner.) In the 1940s, after President Truman passed civil rights legislation, it might as well have been 1861 for black people in Oxford, Mississippi. Confederate flags began appearing at football games, and the school's band began playing "Dixie" during the games. The singing of "Dixie" — which students ended with the chant "The South shall rise again…The South shall rise again" — continued until 2009.
Even the language used to claim that Colonel Reb is not a symbol of racism is, in itself, racist. The Colonel Reb Foundation's defense of the mascot on its website points out that the figure of Colonel Reb is based on a blind black man who "became a peanut vendor in Oxford and was considered the university's mascot for many years." Well, of course, why wouldn't a grown man with a disability be an appropriate mascot? Further investigation of the foundation's website yields this gem: "Blind Jim Ivy" the supposed mascot until his death in 1955, was "[b]orn in 1870 as the son of African slave Matilda Ivy."
Really? There were still African slaves in 1870? The Civil War hadn't resolved that pesky distinction when Lee surrendered in 1865? Perhaps in Mississippi the technicalities on this issue didn't matter because the status of black people did not change much after the Civil War.
The website goes on to explain what predated Colonel Reb:
It was also during this time that one student each year at Ole Miss dressed in a Confederate uniform and paraded down the sidelines exhorting the Rebel faithful to cheer for their winning team.
The Rebel Yell is similar to the charge yell that Confederate soldiers used in battle during the Civil War. The Rebel Yell, along with a huge Confederate flag paraded down the sidelines, made Ole Miss a less-than-hospitable place for black athletes to play when the Southeastern Conference (SEC) was finally integrated in 1966. Ole Miss itself did not have a black athlete until 1971.
The Rebel Yells began in the late 50s right when segregation was deemed unlawful as a not-so-subtle hint to black people to stay out. The sad history of James Meredith's 1962 entry into the school and the riots that followed is well-documented. Colonel Reb's first appearance on the sidelines was in the 1970s. That's right after the period during which all of the SEC"s football teams finally became integrated, including Ole Miss. Colonel Reb was another means to communicate to the black players that had to endure games at Ole Miss that they were not welcome.
Finally, the foundation goes on to tell us that "Jim Ivy would be proud [they] remember him today." Would he? Why? He wasn't in a mascot's uniform. He was trying to earn money by selling peanuts to a privileged, all-white student body and alumni association. But by casting him as a pet mascot, he becomes the non-threatening "property" of the university.
The NYT article reports that the move to get rid of Colonel Reb and banish his merchandise is part of a "longstanding plan to recast the university's image, still tarnished by its reputation for racial strife in the 1960s, to signal that it is more tolerant and diverse." The administration at Ole Miss wants a new image and has, over the years, made strides toward that goal. It has prohibited the playing of "Dixie" at football games, and asked students to stop waving the rebel flag.
I applaud this effort and I hope the Colonel Reb Foundation allows the school to continue to make progress. Mississippi and its flagship university can do better.