The Franklin County Board of Education heard from four speakers Monday night regarding the embattled Franklin County High School "Rebel" mascot, one wanting to keep the mascot, two seeking to remove it and a fourth offering up the option of keeping and modernizing him.
The controversial Rebel mascot has ties to the Confederacy and racism throughout its past, its opponents say, while Rebel supporters say the offensive Confederate flag and old school song "Dixie" were removed years ago and the gray-suited cartoon "Rebel" general shouldn't offend anybody.
"History does not belong to any of us, it belongs to all of us," Franklin County resident and Rebel mascot supporter Michael Bradford told board members Monday.
"You have been petitioned to remove our Rebel mascot. The reasons are twofold, and they are based on falsehoods," Bradford said.
Bradford said the first falsehood is that a rebel by definition is a link to the Confederacy, but he said a rebel is really "a person who stands up for their own personal opinions despite what anyone else says."
Bradford said the second falsehood is that America and Franklin County "have systemic racism."
Bradford pointed to quotes by Jesus and conservative Black leaders in history, modern culture and in government like Candace Owens, Dr. Thomas Sowell, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"These are admirable Black leaders that we should listen to, not Black Lives Matter, who define themselves as trained Marxists," Bradford said.
He said the Rebel for 70 years was "an important tradition," and for some Franklin County High alumni is "all they have left of their youth."
"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'A man should be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin,'" Bradford said. "Although Mr. Rebel is fictional, I hope you'll extend him the same courtesy. If you don't, Col. Harland Sanders, rest in peace, might want to watch his back also."
But Shanae Williams says the Rebel is not only offensive, it's a violation of school system policy and to keep it is to embrace its negative symbolism and history in Franklin County as a holdover from the past.
The Rebel, also called Mr. Rebel or Col. Rebel, has been the high school mascot since 1950 and it often has been a lightning rod of controversy, even when the old high school was replaced with a new facility 15 years ago, according to Franklin County director of schools Stanley Bean.
The current 310,000-square-foot Franklin County High School graduated its first class in 2005, after the old school was retired in favor of a new, larger site. There's no outward sign of the the Rebel image at the school, but the name exists on a campus road, Rebel Drive, on team uniforms, fan wear, equipment and in other sports programs and activities.
At least one petition seeking its removal had more than 4,800 signatures on Tuesday.
Williams, who started that petition, said parents on both sides of the issue are losing sight of the teenage students who simply want the best high school memories.
A counter protest parade against changing the Rebel mascot Monday evening in Winchester prior to the school board meeting "took us back to the '90s," Williams said. "That same parade happened in the '90s. Those same people who participated in that parade today were students back then."
Williams said Franklin County's delay in combining both races in schools until 1966 drove deep the feelings of being left out.
"So in '66 we still were not included, we still had no actual culture of our own and we were forced into the Rebels, we were forced into the white-only student body that was previously there, we were forced into their culture," Williams said. "We were forced into their beliefs, we were forced into this system.
"Today, I'm asking that we think about, not me, not the people in this room, but [that] we think about our kids," she said. "It's not about Black Lives Matter. Black lives do matter but I'm not that movement. I didn't come here to say 'Black Lives Matter so you must change this mascot.'
"What I'm saying is, if all lives really matter, I present you that chance to prove it," Williams said.
"People are here today that were here before I was ever thought of and this was an issue then. It doesn't reoccur for no reason. It doesn't come up for no reason," Williams said. "We can't keep pacifying it and keep putting it off until the next time and the next time. We're going to be out of time soon."
Seeking some common ground, class of 1994 graduate and former Rebels football player Danny Owens called for a more compromising solution. Owens said he was a Rebel football player when now-director of schools Bean was a coach.
"I saw Confederate flags come down. I saw the original walkout. I've seen this before," Owens said. "I'm here tonight to call for compassion and reason."
Owens said small rural communities with only one or two high schools are often identified by those team names and mascots, noting neighboring communities/schools like the Tullahoma Wildcats, Lincoln County Falcons, Moore County Raiders and Putnam County Hornets.
"Removing a community's identity creates a wound and it's a wound in this case that might not heal," Owens said. "There'll be hurt, anger and fear."
Owens pointed to controversies surrounding other athletic teams in the world, like the South African rugby team, Springbok, that held onto its identity despite its links to institutionalized segregation known as Apartheid to keep fans on both sides of the Apartheid issue united. He also noted Middle Tennessee State University's links to Nathan Bedford Forest that were done away with in the 1960s and the Raider mascot that was diluted over the years from its original symbols.
Owens called for Franklin County High's mascot to be "modernized," and he said he could offer different ideas of a modernized logo.
"I argue for retention [of the Rebel] but I think there's an issue," he said. "We can't be united with exclusion in the past."
Franklin County Board of Education members didn't take up any discussion on the mascot and have not responded to recent inquiries about their thoughts on the issue. The elected panel isn't set to take up a discussion on the Rebel until October, according to Franklin County Schools central office officials.
The discussion was delayed from an original discussion date of Aug. 3 because of the scramble to reopen schools, Bean said at the time. He said board members want to be able to focus on the mascot issue without distraction.
The last speaker to address the board graduated from Franklin County's all-African American Townsend School in 1958.
"In 1966, desegregation, not integration, closed Townsend High School," a fiery Barbara Blackwell Brannon told the board.
"Townsend is the high school where I learned, where I thrived. It was the place where I was a leader, a place where I was a Tiger, a place where I was proud of who I was," Brannon said."Our children and our grandchildren will never experience this pride."
The only school pride Black students might have at Franklin County High "will always have a stain as long as there is a Rebel mascot," she said. "They have been robbed of their culture. They have been made to accept your culture. After all, it's the only game in town."
Brannon called for the board to change course immediately to unify the county.
"We cannot accept any more olive branches. Next time? Give us a time. Wait for the right time? The time is now," Brannon told board members. "We hold you accountable. The world is watching and the world is changing; even Mississippi. Franklin County, let's join together and make a change."
Board members are expected to take up the issue when the panel meets Oct. 12, according to officials.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.
PROJECT REBEL DEMANDS FOR CHANGE
Demands of Change: Remove all sounds and symbols of anything resembling or connected to the Confederacy.
We ask that the school board adopt as official policy and fully implement these recommendations under the school/student code of conduct:
1. Prohibit/discontinue the song and sound of 'Dixie' in any FCHS sponsored, affiliated activities/events, and school functions (pep rallies, sporting events, parades, etc).
2. Rebel mascot (the name, symbol, all signage, etc) - A mascot is anything that is used to represent a group with a common public identity. The 'Rebel,' symbol and name, is a depiction and symbolic representation of a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. At the time of Franklin County's inception, in the 1950s [before the significant ruling of Brown v Board of Education in 1954], the student body was intentionally composed of only white students. Therefore, the mascot as a whole, specifically considering Franklin Co. School System's history of overt racial oppression, that resulted in a prolonged period of segregation, does not represent the Franklin County School System of today. The Confederates' and the 'states-rights' which they fought for included the categorization of African-Americans as property to enslave, instead of a human being with the capability to fully exercise their rights as an American citizen.
3. The school seal - The school seal is designed with stars and stripes that are indicative, via design and formation, of a strong relationship with the Confederate flag. Any symbol(s) that appear connected to the Confederacy, or resemble Confederate symbols, which represents the high school [a public institution] is egregious and should not be commemorated in any sense.
Source: Project Rebel summary written by Shanae Williams seeking removal of "sounds and symbols of anything resembling or connected to the Confederacy."