Time to retire the Rebel

To Editor, Newton County Enterprise

Firstly, I would like to congratulate the South Newton class of 2020. I am writing this on June 5th, 2020, the date of the first-ever remote scholarship ceremony, in advance of the delayed commencement ceremony as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I can only imagine the burden, stress, and grief caused by such an unexpected turn of events, and I commend the educators, administration, technicians, and students on their strength and perseverance shown during a uniquely challenging 2019-2020 school year. Out of respect for the students being celebrated this evening, I’m withholding this letter for a few days, so that no attention might be diverted from a 2020 class rightfully deserving of their moment, as the rest of us had ours.

To the graduating seniors: Your class will be forever remembered throughout history for what you are going through. My hope is this results in even greater strength and creativity as you all transition into adulthood. I have no doubt the class of 2020 will bring about great things in the future as a result of the unprecedented events we’ve experienced so far this year. I also hope that you will consider what I am about to recommend as a step in that journey.

I joined the ranks of SNHS alumni in 2003, just like these seniors — well...not just like them — are doing this summer. I did so alongside my friends, peers, teachers, and family, and I had the honor of giving a speech during commencement. At the time I was admittedly flippant and nervous, as I recall, when writing and delivering that speech. But I now realize what a missed opportunity that was to help bring about necessary change at South Newton. This is an attempt to make amends, and to deliver a message to the entire South Newton community.

When we received our diplomas, we did so surrounded by symbolism. Not symbolism of education, or family, or honor. But symbolism of the past: flags and murals which are relics of the darkest time in our country’s history. Confederate flags, depictions of a mascot modeled after a confederate soldier, and “Home of the Rebels” scrawled above the bleachers. It’s my understanding some of these are gone, while others, including the name itself, largely remain.

At the time, I will admit, I had grown accustomed to these symbols. I was an avid fan of our Rebel teams (though not much of an athlete myself) and a proud member of the marching and pep band. I had...perhaps not a fondness, but a sense of humor about the absurdity of it all. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve talked about my school’s mascot several times to colleagues and family members, who always share a laugh with me. But, as is too often the case when it comes to high school, we were laughing at the school, not with it. I suspect many of my fellow alumni share the same experience.

I am most certainly not implying that anyone associated with South Newton is guilty of racism simply as a result of that association, or any work done with these symbols as it relates to the school. I acknowledge that the decision to give South Newton the “Rebel” name back in the 1960s may very well have been nothing but an ill-considered attempt at good-natured humor to represent the southern half of the county. But I am suggesting — rather, peacefully demanding — that the South Newton community stands in solidarity with the Black community both locally and throughout America. We must acknowledge, publicly and without hesitation or caveat, that many in this country still experience similar pain and suffering as was occurring during the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. Considering the events of the era, I have no doubt that a similar conversation came up over 50 years ago when the leaders at the time were deciding on a school mascot. This decision was, at best, blissfully ignorant denial of the controversy that would result, just as it is today.

I realize that, in the hearts and minds of those who would defend them, the Rebel mascot and moniker do not symbolize the atrocities committed by the Confederate States of America. That said, we live in a time of division in this country not seen since at least the 1960s, if not the 1860s — the days of the Confederacy itself. The Rebel name and associated symbols, to many people, will always represent slavery. If you disagree, I concede that I’m unlikely to change your mind, but also understand that my mind, and that of millions of other individuals, is similarly made up. As a result, the controversy and division it causes in our community will never cease.

I acknowledge the process to change the mascot would require no small amount of effort and financial resources. If a change is approved, I will stand with the community and start a crowdfunding campaign to help alleviate the associated costs, whether for the school itself or local businesses impacted. I suspect similarly minded alumni (or even current students) would be happy to assist with adjustment of digital artwork, as well.

On behalf of my fellow alumni, students, and community members who feel the same, I implore the South Newton community to listen carefully to those who may have different experiences and feelings from their own. Something as innocuous as a mascot may be trivial compared to the events that prompt our brothers and sisters to march in the streets across America, but it is nonetheless a relevant wrong that is overdue to be righted. Let South Newton be a beacon, an example for others in the state of Indiana and beyond, and a point of pride, rather than an embarrassing anecdote, a source of divisiveness, and, far more importantly, a symbol of very real pain.

It is well past time to retire the Rebel.

Brandon T. Storey

SNHS Class of 2003