week of 2/27/02

Smoky Mountain News (Waynesville, NC) Feb. 27, 2002

A battle not worth winning
By Scott McLeod

There really shouldn’t be any debate about whether a school should be able to retain as its symbol a mascot that a certain group of people finds inappropriate and offensive. The more fundamental question, really, is why “tradition” is allowed to carry more weight than “right.”

A small, simple exhibit is currently on view at Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library, but it’s one that packs a powerful message. It is about the Native American mascot issue, revealing that in many cases terms such as “Braves” and “Redskins” are totally inappropriate. Many of the words used as mascots evoke sacred names or are derogatory in nature. Unfortunate-ly, many schools (Erwin in Buncombe County, for one) refuse to rid themselves of the mascots. Indeed, many schools fight long, drawn-out battles to retain them.

That same exhibit prompted Annie McCord, the eighth-grade Student Government Association president at Cullowhee Valley School, to write a letter to the editor of The Sylva Herald. She is appalled that her school uses a Confederate symbol as a mascot and calls its teams the “Rebels.”

“It is time to shed this unfortunate image of the past and to select a new mascot with positive imagery and associations,” said McCord’s letter.

We wholeheartedly agree with McCord. And though we can hear the accusations coming, that another newspaper is trying to be “politically correct” and take away an important part of Southern heritage, we don’t care. It’s an important issue, and those who will hide behind accusations and rhetoric are skirting the issue.

If the NFL franchise Washington Redskins wants to keep a Native American symbol as their mascot, we would argue that they have a right to do so. It is a private business, and though we might not like it, we don’t have to watch them, root for them or buy their products. Same for the Atlanta Braves and others.

When schools use these symbols, though, it is altogether a different story. For one, everything that goes on at a school is part of the larger curriculum. African-Americans were enslaved under the culture of the old South. They surely find the Rebel offensive. Others, like McCord, (who, by the way, is a white Southerner, and whose parents are Southerners, ) also see it as a degrading symbol and not one that every student at the school should have to associate with. Just what are we teaching these children?

There are ongoing debates about the appropriate way to honor and remember Southern history without offending African-Americans and whites who don’t want to be around a symbol of one of the last cultures on earth that condoned slavery and promoted its expansion. A recent news story described how two workers were sent home from the construction site of a public building because they wore shirts that depicted the Confederate flag. That, I would argue, is taking it too far. Someone else suggested that if we are going to remove the Rebel from Cullowhee Valley, perhaps we should also go through the parking lot at Smoky Mountain High and send those students home whose cars and trucks sport Confederate flags. Again, that is excessive.

There is a clear difference between the private display of these symbols and the government support of them, which is what occurs when a school uses the Rebel as its mascot. What happens when teams with African-Americans visit Cullowhee Valley? Just because very few African-Americans attend the school does not do away with the offensiveness of the symbol.

I remember when this battle was fought on the other side of the state, in Fayetteville. The Rebel was the mascot for Pine Forest High School. A new, bigger school was built, and when the move was going on many in the community asked that the Rebel mascot be put in its grave. Tensions were high at the time, and there were some fights between whites and blacks. Eventually, the name was changed to the Trojans.

That was more than a quarter of a century ago, and I was in middle school (junior high, in those days). Integration battles were being fought throughout the South, and the last vestiges of those old Rebels were done away with in most places because they were too provocative and too divisive. The mountains have been spared much of that civil unrest, but that does not absolve local governments of doing what is right.

The argument is a simple one — racism is wrong, slavery is evil, and rubbing the remnants of this era in the face of anyone is just rude. Time to be done with it.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at info@smokymountainnews.com)