Ole Miss Retires Controversial Mascot

No more Colonel Reb for Ole Miss fans. The controversial mascot's days are officially numbered after students at the University voted to replace him. The southern rebel army colonel mascot offended many, until it was finally banned by the University in 2003. Now, seven years later, the search for a new mascot will finally begin. Michel Martin will talk to the editor of Ole Miss' campus newspaper about the emotional battle that has divided students, faculty, and alumni.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we want to move to the first of two stories that touch on how the country is grappling with race right now. Both stories take place on college campuses.

First, the students of the University of Mississippi also known as Ole Miss just voted to have students design a new mascot that officially ends the reign of a controversial Colonel Reb thats a symbol of the states confederate history.

The university decided to ban Colonel Reb from events in 2003 because many found the image increasingly offensive. This decision came after a hard-fought battle that divided the Ole Miss student body, faculty and alumni for years.

We wanted to know more about this, so we called Alex McDaniel. She is a senior at the University of Mississippi and editor of The Daily Mississippian, Ole Misss Campus newspaper. Alex, welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. ALEX MCDANIEL (University of Mississippi, Editor, The Daily Mississippian): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about todays vote - was there wide participation? I assume it was an online vote?

Ms. MCDANIEL: Yes, the vote took place on Tuesday and it was open to all full-time students at the university. We boast about 18,000 enrolled students, not sure how many full time, but there had been more build up from the week before when we had our student government elections and everybody knew it was coming. So, we had some advertising campaigns from different organizations coming out and, you know, a lot of campaigning, a lot of lobbying, a lot of influence. And when it came down at the voting, I dont think anybody on campus was sure how it was going to turn out, just based on the fact that for the past seven years there has been so much controversy about it.

So, when it came down and found out that, you know, 75 percent of those who voted actually voted to move forward, I think it marked a pretty significant day, just in our universitys history.

MARTIN: Well, as you said nearly 75 percent of the votes cast voted to move forward, whether to support a student-led effort to develop and propose a new on-field mascot. But as I understand it, only about 3300 votes were cast - a little more than 3300 votes were cast - which is, I mean, I dont know - how do you interpret that?

Ms. MCDANIEL: Honestly, judging based on past student government elections and things like that, that we've had that was actually pretty impressive, especially for referendum. At the same time though, I think there has been criticism, you know, is this an apathetic campus, do they really care what happened? There were a few different elements going into it though. For one, there wasnt well enough communication from the student government to media sources, including The Daily Mississippian, about what this vote actually meant.

And for weeks were reporting, based on interviews, that it was just a vote -whether you wanted a new mascot or you didnt. And it wasnt until Sunday night when I was putting the paper together for the next day, we dedicated the entire front page to explaining what the vote meant, which actually was - do you want the students to lead it or do you not? And so, after that there was a lot of confusion, a lot of the different organizations that were pro-Colonel Reb started fighting it and saying it was a lie and it was propaganda. And so I think a lot of maybe a lot of students were too confused to want to vote. But even then, it was actually pretty impressive turnout based on elections that weve had.

MARTIN: And I was going to ask you that. That leads to my next question, which is, what were the arguments on both sides? I could understand - I think people who've ever seen Colonel Reb would understand why many people would say, you know, this isnt really the image we need, right now, for this era...

Ms. MCDANIEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...this is diverse campus now. Its not, you know - celebrating the Confederate a Confederate general is not necessarily the way we want to be viewed by the rest of the country right now.

Ms. MCDANIEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But what were the arguments on the other side, for keeping Colonel Reb?

Ms. MCDANIEL: Well, I think the primary argument that we are hearing, or that weve heard in the past few weeks, is that the people most of the people that are pro-Colonel Reb, they just love him because he's the symbol of the university, that theyre not trying to promote anything divisive. Theyre not trying to promote racial symbol, but that it meant so much to them that they should, you know, try to retain it. However, this wasnt about intent, it was about perception.

And that was the one thing that I think was lost on people on both sides, is that regardless of how many people are attached to the symbol, regardless of how many view it as just school spirit, theyre not considering what that looks, among, you know, in the South and in the nation, for the State of Mississippi.

MARTIN: What were some of the student-to-student conversations like about this? I dont know if you participated in any. You know, where people just say, you know, having lunch together, dinner together and just talking about things. Were there a lot of student-to-student conversation about it, and what was that like?

Ms. MCDANIEL: Well, I think the main thing between students is that the administration already said Colonel Reb was not an option. He was not coming back. That theres no way this vote could revive him and bring him back as an on-field mascot. So, I loved the students who stuck on that and just said, you know, I dont really understand what being for Colonel Reb would, or being pro-Colonel Reb, would actually do, considering he's not coming back. And then on the other side, you have people, I mean - these students have been without a mascot for seven years.

Most of the people that voted, a great deal of people that voted, werent even here. We were teenagers in high school when this happened, so we're not used to having an on-field mascot. So, I think a lot of it was, just kind of feeling like we were stuck in the middle of a battle between alumni and administration. Because it's the alumni that were passionate about it, this was their mascot. But, you know, this is a new student body. This is not the student body of 2003. And I think that was the primary thing was just, you know, where do we fit in all of this and where does our opinion fall?

MARTIN: And I was going to ask you about that. Did, in a way - you had to have been, you know, when this first started, you know, you were a teen, a pre-teen even, and for most of the students there. So, did it seem a little stupid in a way?

Ms. MCDANIEL: I wouldnt say stupid. I mean, my father born and raised in Mississippi and he grew up in the 50s and 60s. And he was always used to, you know, seeing the Colonel Reb symbol. And, you know, every time I go home theres a Colonel Reb statue in my front yard and...

MARTIN: Oh, is there?

Ms. MCDANIEL: Yes there is. All it is is about school spirit and we live in Arkansas. So, in a way its kind of debunking the Razorbacks. But - it, you know, it does seem silly to put so much emphasis and so much effort and so much money into trying to influence the student body, when were really talking about a cartoon. Because this isnt an issue of a mascot, its an issue of a university - a university thats been thriving, a university thats made great strides and is actually quite progressive but is so limited by being attached to these symbols that create this kind of division, this kind of controversy.

So, I think that was that was a very prevalent opinion, as far as why are we focusing on this cartoon when we have a university and an educational institution we need to focus on?

MARTIN: So, whats going to happen to your Colonel Reb in the front yard? What are you doing with them?

Ms. MCDANIEL: Oh, Im sure it will stay. You know, its one of those that its less about Colonel Reb, its more about Ole Miss with my family. I mean, its mainly, you know, support that - that Im getting in education and everything like that. Im sure when we do develop a new mascot, if they make a new statue, I guarantee it will be right there with it. Its more of just kind of a novelty item, people are used to it. But, you know, thats another thing, too. The university was very inconsistent after removing Colonel Reb in 2003, because they continued to use the symbol on merchandise. Thats why there are Colonel Reb status and Colonel Reb T-shirts and hats and everything else.

MARTIN: Well, thats worth pointing out. I appreciate that. So, Alex, I understand youre a student journalist and so were not really asking for your personal opinion here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you have a vote for what you think the next mascot should be? Do you have a preference?

Ms. MCDANIEL: Well, I know all the stuff about Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars, has come down and kind of brought some light in our university. You know, I just think as long as its truly a student-led initiative and its not just the student government or just a small group of student leaders who are making all the decisions, if the entire student body gets the opportunity to come together and choose something, you know, I think we have the chance to develop something really great and something thats representative of our university, rather than representative of a time that we dont want to remember anymore.

MARTIN: How about an Alex statue?

Ms. MCDANIEL: All right, you know

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCDANIEL: Im sure my dad wouldnt be opposed to it but I dont know how that would look, you know, to everybody else. But well see what happens. Its a really exciting time, right now, at Ole Miss.

MARTIN: All right. Alex McDaniel is the editor of The Daily Mississippian, the University of Mississippis campus newspaper. She joined us from Oxford. Alex, thank you. Good luck to you as well and congratulations on your senior year.

Ms. MCDANIEL: Oh, thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

Im Michel Martin.

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