By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — An effort to enshrine an Old South university mascot into the Mississippi Constitution is a lost cause — at least for now.
Arthur Randallson of Southaven directs the Colonel Reb Political Action Committee, a group that’s been pushing a ballot initiative to make the University of Mississippi revive a mascot it retired in 2003. He told The Associated Press on Friday that he won’t meet the July 9 deadline to gather signatures to put the Colonel Reb amendment on the statewide ballot.
Organizers have one year to gather signatures of at least 89,285 registered voters, and Randallson said they’ve collected about 41,000 signatures after 11 months.
“If people mail them in and it miraculously counts, then we would be overjoyed,” Randall said. “However, it would take a divine miracle.”
Ole Miss shelved Colonel Reb amid concerns the goateed old man resembled a plantation owner. Administrators said the mascot was hurting athletic and academic recruiting, and the Confederate imagery didn’t match the forward-thinking image they sought for the school in Oxford.
Ole Miss teams are still called Rebels, but students voted in 2010 to have a black bear as a mascot.
Randallson said he launched a petition to put Colonel Reb in the state constitution because the colonel wasn’t allowed as an option when students voted on a mascot.
Even if enough signatures were submitted by July 9, the soonest the initiative could be on the ballot is November 2014. Randallson said he might launch another initiative with hopes of getting the issue on the 2015 ballot, when Mississippi elects a governor and other state officials.
Lee Tyner, special assistant to University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones, said Friday that Ole Miss fans are focused on supporting student athletes and a new football coach and athletic director.
“It is that unity that will make us competitive in the years to come, not a constitutional amendment,” Tyner said in a news release that didn’t mention either mascot.
Critics have said it’s silly to try to put a school mascot into the state constitution.
Courtney Cunningham of Chicago, who will be an Ole Miss senior this fall, said she has heard strong opinions for and against Colonel Reb from fellow students. She said many of her white friends love the old mascot, while many of her black friends hate it.
“It goes back to what your understanding of Colonel Reb is,” Cunningham said Friday in Jackson.
Cunningham said she liked Colonel Reb but she also likes the black bear. She said she’d only be upset if the school stopped calling its teams the Rebels.
“I’ll always be a Rebel at heart,” she said.
Randallson, 37, is chairman of the Southaven-based Tea Party of Mississippi and is working on a master’s degree in southern studies at Ole Miss. He said he sees Colonel Reb as a victim of political correctness.
“The father of our country, George Washington, was a plantation owner himself, and we’re not forced to change the name of our national capital, Washington state is not forced to change its name and we’re not taking down statues to George Washington,” Randallson said. “I’m sad that the heritage of Ole Miss had to be taken away just because of a historical technicality.”
Colonel Rebel first appeared in an Ole Miss yearbook in 1937. The university has struggled in recent decades to shed Old South imagery.
In 1962, Ole Miss received worldwide notoriety because of bloody battles that accompanied the court-ordered admission of James Meredith as the first black student. From the 1950s through the 1980s, students waved the Confederate battle flag at athletic events, and administrators eventually made the flag disappear by banning items on sticks.
Pete Boone, who was athletic director when Colonel Reb was retired, said in 2003: “The Confederacy is behind us. I just think that it’s time for us to change our whole thought process, our whole image, our whole look and feel about being the team of the 21st century.”
Geoffrey Yoste of Oxford, an Ole Miss alumnus, said Friday that he loves Colonel Reb but he doesn’t think any mascot should be put up for a statewide vote or put in the constitution.
“I told Pete Boone years ago — just update him,” Yoste said. “You don’t have to put him in the attic like a crazy uncle.”
Randallson said people of all racial backgrounds signed the Colonel Reb ballot initiative. He said some fans of Ole Miss’ archrival, Mississippi State University, also signed in solidarity of defending longstanding traditions.
“We have enough experience in dealing with the Colonel Reb fight to know it seems only the media will portray Colonel Reb as offensive,” Randallson said. “We really disagree with the premise that Colonel Reb is unpopular and offensive. Far from being offensive, he is widely and universally beloved. That’s what we found.”
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