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Ole Miss to vote on Colonel Reb successor

Col. Reb
Ole Miss mascot Col. Reb roams the stands of football games, as he did among Ole Miss supporters during last year's Egg Bowl game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss. Formerly the on-field mascot, the longtime symbol of the university was nixed in 2003 as part of the University of Mississippi's ongoing move to distance itself from reminders of a Confederate past. Rogelio V. Solis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Colonel Reb shall not rise again. That much is certain.

The University of Mississippi dumped the mascot — a caricature of a white plantation owner — in a 2003 effort to distance the school from Old South stereotypes. It's been without a mascot ever since. A vote Tuesday could change that.

Students will have only two choices in the online referendum: yes, replace the colonel with something else — perhaps a riverboat gambler or a colonial soldier — or no, remain the only school in the Southeastern Conference without a mascot.

In a world where football is akin to religion, and sports symbolism carries the power of a totem, this is no small matter. Stories about the upcoming vote have run prominently in the campus newspaper for weeks.

"We're tired of having nothing to represent us," said junior Josh Hinton, a member of the Associated Student Body, which approved a resolution calling for the vote. "We've gotten our song taken away. We want to have some kind of tradition back."

Trying to remove racial tensions
Ole Miss, with its pristine lawns and white-columned buildings, has struggled for more than a decade with how to retain that tradition while shedding symbols of the Old South. It's all part of an effort to remove past racial tensions that date back to 1962, when a deadly riot followed James Meredith's attempt to become the university's first black student.

In 1997, the school ended the waving of Confederate flags at sporting events. Then Colonel Reb was booted off the field. Last year, the band stopped playing the fight song, "From Dixie with Love," to discourage the fan chant, "The South will rise again."

Koriann Porter, a black sophomore who collected more than 1,700 student signatures in support of a new mascot, said much has changed on campus since the civil rights era. The school has clubs devoted to embracing its diversity, and 15 percent of the 18,344 students are black. The state's black population is a 37.2 percent.

"When it comes to racial reconciliation, we embody the utopian society," she said.

Maybe not altogether utopian: Richard McKay, vice president of the Associated Student Body, said he had received some hate e-mail about the vote.

"We've gotten a lot of input whether it was asked for or not," said McKay, who is white. "A lot of students are afraid that as soon as we have a new mascot, everyone will forget about Colonel Reb."

In a Nov. 11, 2009 photo, Colonel Reb, the beloved Old South gentleman banished from the sidelines nearly seven years ago, is fondly endorsed by a group of students at a football game in Oxford, Miss. Students will take a yes or no vote on Tuesday for a new mascot. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Other vestiges of the Old South can also be found on campus. The Mississippi state flag, with its Confederate battle emblem, is still flown and the team nickname remains the Rebels, adopted in 1936 after a group of sportswriters voted to replace the Flood. That won't change even if the mascot does.

Ole Miss isn't the only Southern university that still winces over a painful heritage stretching from antebellum slavery though the Civil War, Jim Crow and the modern civil rights struggles.

At the University of Alabama last year, an event involving members of the Kappa Alpha Order dressed as Confederate soldiers drew complaints from a black sorority. The fraternity later apologized.

Fans remain loyal and vocal
In Thibodaux, La., Nicholls State University reinvented its colonel mascot in 2009 after retiring the previous "Col. Tillou" amid concern that the figure recalled a uniformed Confederate officer.

While the university has made it clear there's no going back to the goateed Colonel Reb, his fans remain loyal and vocal.

"The majority of students I talked to feel they'd rather have no mascot if they can't have Colonel Reb, and that's going to be evident," said Hannah Loy, a senior from Natchez. She's part of the Colonel Reb Foundation, which is urging students to vote "no" to a new mascot.

A variation of the colonel first appeared in the 1930s in a yearbook. The image of the white character in a red wide-brimmed hat and tuxedo, leaning on a cane, is believed to have been based on a black man named Blind Jim Ivy, who attended most of the school's athletic events, according to school historian David Sansing. The colonel made the official transition to the field in 1979.

Hinton says he's been searching the Internet for ideas on a new image to replace him. He thinks a riverboat gambler or a colonial soldier modeled on a New England patriot could work. McKay said there's been some talk about using a cardinal in a nod to the Cardinal Club, a school spirit organization that was recently revived. The club, started in 1927, uses a logo featuring the bird.

Chancellor Dan Jones said the administration will support whatever decision the students make.

They're not the only ones closely watching the vote. Alum Bob Dunlap, 80, who's in the tire business, said he has donated about $1 million to Ole Miss athletics over the years, but he'll likely stop if Colonel Reb is removed from the campus entirely. He said the vote is unnecessary.

"Everybody liked that little guy at those ball games," Dunlap said. "They just create a lot of bad feeling when they do these type of things."