Friday, 12 September 2003

Pushing Colonel Reb out the proverbial airlock: a Fisking in three movements

Frankly, for the longest time I was planning to keep my mouth shut about Colonel Reb. Just let everyone run around complaining about the supposed duplicity of Chancellor Robert Khayat and AD Pete Boone. Scream at the top of their lungs about how heritage was getting kicked to the curb once again in the name of political correctness. Blah blah blah.

Then I visited the improbably named Not SaveColonelReb, mind you, but SaveOleMiss. Let’s start with the front page, shall we?

We are thrilled that you care enough about your input on Mississippi’s flagship university in regard to their totally irrelevant characterization of our beloved mascot Colonel Reb. On behalf of the Colonel, we are glad you want to get involved!

First of all, if that statement is indicative of the literacy level of members of this campaign, the Colonel’s in pretty big trouble. That first sentence doesn’t even parse (try it!). But, nonetheless, we can read on:

After you take the time to read the history of the Colonel, we hope you will take some real action that will have results.

Ok, fair enough. Let me go and read the history of the Colonel:

Noted University of Mississippi historian David Sansing has long pointed out that the model for the original Colonel Rebel emblem was a black man. Blind Jim Ivy was a campus fixture until his death in 1955.

1955, you might note, is seven years prior to James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962. Just in case you were keeping score at home. (Something tells me Sansing wasn’t quite as sympathetic to Colonel Reb as this account suggests, either.)

Jim Ivy became an integral part of the University of Mississippi in 1896. Born in 1870 as the son of African slave Matilda Ivy, he moved from Alabama to Mississippi in 1890.

One hopes Matilda Ivy wasn’t a slave when her son was born, that occurring five years after the Civil War and all. But then again, news travels slow down here.

Ivy was blinded in his early teens when coal tar paint got into his eyes while painting the Tallahatchie River Bridge. Ivy became a peanut vendor in Oxford and was considered the university’s mascot for many years.

Wow. Guy loses sight, sells peanuts, becomes campus mascot. What a lovely rags-to-riches tale. (Incidentally, he would have been 20 when he moved to Mississippi, yet somehow got coal tar paint in his eyes painting the Tallahatchie River Bridge, which is in Mississippi, in his early teens. This story doesn’t exactly track. Moving on…)

Ivy attended most Ole Miss athletic events and was fond of saying, “I’ve never seen Ole Miss lose.”

At least you can’t accuse Jim of being politically correct…

Ivy was very much a part of the Ole Miss scene in 1936 when the editor of the school newspaper proposed a contest to produce a new nickname for Ole Miss teams, then known as The Flood.

“Very much a part of the Ole Miss scene”? Was he hanging out at the Billiard Club with the frat guys on Saturday nights? I’m guessing not, since this was 1936.

According to Sansing, “If you look at the photo of Blind Jim in the three-piece suit, with the hat, there’s a striking resemblance. The original Colonel Rebel emblem is a spitting image of Blind Jim Ivy, except for white skin.”

He should sue! Oh, wait, he’s (a) blind and (b) dead. I guess that isn’t happening.

So they whitewashed Blind Jim and turned him into Colonel Reb. Wow. What a beautiful story. It’s so touching, it almost reminds me of a minstrel show or Amos ‘n’ Andy (which, perhaps not coincidentally, was part of the social mileu at this time).

Colonel Reb soon became an honor all over campus. In the 1940’s the tradition of voting for Colonel Reb and Miss Ole Miss were the highest honors students could bestow on their fellow attendees. Still elected every fall by the student population, many notables of the history of Ole Miss have earned this honor including former NFL standout Ben Williams. “Gentle Ben” was also the first black football player at Ole Miss.

That’s nice, a black man was elected Colonel Reb (or perhaps Miss Ole Miss; the phrasing is rather unclear!). Poetic justice for Blind Jim, I guess.

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.

Well, back before you could buy alcohol in Lafayette County, I guess that was about the only fun thing to do on weekends.

Jim Ivy would be proud we remember him today.

Either that or really pissed off that he hasn’t been earning royalties on the commercial exploitation of his image. Or at least a whiteface version of it.

But it gets better. We find out that taking action has had an effect elsewhere:

This past spring the University of Massachussetts had the same problem as Ole Miss.

What, a mascot that reeks of nostalgia for the days of Jim Crow and resembles a blind man who never would have been allowed to set foot in a classroom on the campus except as a member of the custodial staff? Actually, no; the guy looks more like Paul Revere (to review, he won his war). But I will award 2 points for chutzpah.

Also helpfully provided by the “Colonel Reb Foundation” are directories of home phone numbers for university officials, members of the Athletic Committee, and the members of the IHL board. Just in case the spirit moved site visitors to start harrassing members of the university community over a stupid mascot.

Yep, Jim Ivy would be damn proud. What an embarrassing display of exactly why the mascot needs to be changed in the first place: it’s a rallying point for idiots who care more about symbols than people and long for the past instead of contributing to the future. If this group is representative of the people who want to “Save Ole Miss,” then Colonel Reb—and Ole Miss—isn’t worth saving.

It doesn’t exactly help that the content of their site is plagiarized from at least two other sites.

Patrick Carver posts a thoughtful response. I think “buck-toothed inbred racially-insensitive slack-jawed yokels” is a bit beyond my characterization; most of the people waving around Confederate flags and shouting “Save Colonel Reb” during the game that I noticed were well-dressed, old-money, not-very-sober frat boys and sorority girls. Nary a buck-toothed yokel among them. On the other hand, the people who designed that site seem to have not paid much attention in high school English class; surely the Save Colonel Reb campaign can find someone whose level of literacy would exceed that displayed on Atrios’ comment board, and who might actually understand that a long screed about how Colonel Reb is a whitewashed black man might seem slightly offensive to people who haven’t grown up in the South (where whites having black friends and acquaintances while using racial epithets to describe them in all-white company hasn’t exactly died out).

Now to the substance of Patrick’s comments: Admittedly, I don’t care at all for the way the administration does business in general—not just on Colonel Reb, but also on various other issues: relegating the doctoral hooding ceremony from graduation to a separate event; implementing a "graduation tax"; increasing parking fees by administrative whim; having endless consultations with campus committees and then just deciding things by fiat; et cetera. Frankly, that’s old news as far as the way Pete Boone, Carolyn Staton, and Robert Khayat do business. And, basically, that’s what 99% of campus administrations do, albeit not to the point like here at Ole Miss where one has to be a Kremlinologist and/or a conspiracy theorist to figure out what’s happening next.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that the means make much difference in this case. Khayat could make a huge show about consulting the student body, alumni, what have you, but the fact is that the decision has already been made (and has been made ever since the start); that decision-making style is part of the Ole Miss campus culture under this administration. And, honestly, I don’t see a position for compromise here; either Colonel Reb is on the field or not. If he is, recruiters can use it against us and it’s another chip on the “Ole Miss is stuck in 1961” pile. If he isn’t, alumni get upset (though, I suspect that if Ole Miss winds up in Atlanta playing Georgia in early December, they won’t be that upset).

So, yes, the administration did a horrible job of (a) explaining what it’s doing and why and (b) consulting with people that might disagree with that choice. And, yes, that decision-making style sucks eggs. But since for just this once the Khayat-Staton-Boone group has reached a decision that I agree with on the merits, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the show while (at least some of) the opposition make complete fools of themselves in response.