The Effingham County High School nickname will remain the Rebels, Superintendent Randy Shearouse announced Tuesday.
Shearouse said the school system will continue to use the Rebel name “not as a name of hate, but as a name associated with pride in one’s school and its traditions.”
“The Effingham County Board of Education prides itself as a leading school system in the state of Georgia,” Shearouse said in a statement. “Opportunities abound for all students to be successful in whatever course in life they choose to follow. The recent concern over the rebel name at Effingham County High School has brought attention to a great high school with not only a tradition, but a vision where every child is successful.”
The NAACP issued its own response Tuesday afternoon.
“This fight is about more than the flag; it’s about the failure of the school system to engage parents, listen to the community, and to put the common good over allegiance to a heritage of hate,” said Francys Johnson, a Statesboro attorney and state president of the Georgia NAACP.
Effingham NAACP branch president Leroy Lloyd said Shearouse’s description of a system where every student is successful is “as untruthful as his attempt to reconcile the confederate swastika and the racist tune ‘Dixie’ with a heritage of pride.”
Added Johnson: “There is anti-diversity climate that is pervasive. As a result the system is less diverse than other systems its size; has worst academic outcomes and less parental involvement for African Americans.”
The NAACP also said it would address the school system's graduation rate - with nearly 20 percent of white students and 40 percent of black students not graduating. Shearouse said Effingham County's overall graduation rate for 2014 was 85.9 percent, outstripping the state rate of 72.5 percent and the national rate of 81 percent.
The Effingham NAACP asked the board of education last Tuesday to end the use of the nickname, stop playing “Dixie” as the school fight song and further distance the school from Confederate flags and symbols in an emotional meeting.
“These symbols point to a system of overt racism and they do not accurately represent all students,” said Bishop Franklin Blanks, pastor First Union Baptist Church in Guyton, to a packed BoE auditorium. “We believe people should be treated with dignity.”
“It is a symbol of hate and racism because of the many acts under that banner,” Leroy Lloyd, president of the Effingham NAACP, said of the Confederate flag.
Blanks said African-American students back in the 1990s refused to play “Dixie” and opted out of the band “because there was no other way around it.”
“It impeded their educational experience,” he said.
Blanks and Lloyd implored the school board to call for the end of the use of the Confederate flag in association with Effingham County High School.
“This association of this banner to the Confederacy will never be erased,” Blanks said.
But the vast majority of the crowd Tuesday night appeared to support keeping the Rebels nickname and the continued playing of “Dixie.” Robin Screen, a recent ECHS grad who has started an online petition to keep the name and fight song, said his motives had nothing to do with racism.
“I’m not here to offend anybody,” he said. “That’s what not any of what I started is about. I started the petition to bring people together.”
Screen said his petition has collected more than 6,500 names.
“What I want to make clear is I’m not trying to associate anything we have with racism,” he said. “Everything we have is about school pride.”
Screen acknowledged the use of the Rebel flag can have a racist connotation. But as for the Rebel Rousers, the group of students who back Effingham County High athletics are known to brandish the flag, those actions are not connected to the school and aren’t racist in nature.
“That is not who we are, though,” he said. “We are proud to be from Effingham County. The Rebel Rousers are completely voluntarily. It was the students’ choice to fly the Rebel flag. It is not something put together by the school.”
Stephen Turner also spoke in favor of keeping the Rebels name.
“This is Effingham County, Georgia, and on the north end, we are the Rebels,” he said. “Why change something that ain’t broke?”
A woman who spoke in favor of keeping the Rebels moniker said she hated that African-Americans were kept as slaves and treated poorly in the decades after the Civil War.
“It was not right,” she said. “We all agree with that. But trying to erase our history is not the way to do it.”
Mary Woods, a 1991 graduate of Effingham County High School, asked if a compromise could be replaced.
“I was born and raised in Effingham County,” said Woods, who is African-American. “I started out a Guyton Gator. I ended up a Panther and I ended up as a Rebel. I didn’t go to Effingham County because of the Rebel flag. That flag didn’t mean anything to me. It gave me the inspiration to fight.”
Effingham Superintendent Randy Shearouse said the school system decided back in the 2000s to de-emphasize the Rebels as the school mascot and use a capital E as the school emblem.
“There is not an official mascot,” he said.
Shearouse also said the school system does not promote the use of the Rebel flag.
“The Effingham County School System was proactive years ago and started using the ‘E’ as our official logo or symbol,” the superintendent said in Tuesday’s statement. “All uniforms, both school and athletic should only have this approved ‘E’ and the school system will ensure adherence to this rule. All official signs and scoreboards located around campus have the official ‘E.’
“There are some artifacts that are part of the school’s history that remain such as a sign given by the class of 1982, a few small items in a trophy case in honor of a beloved past coach, and a painted phrase and caricature commissioned by a past principal in the 1990s.”
School board chairman Lamar Allen told the crowd the board would not vote on the issue that night.
“We’re going to take what was said under consideration,” he said.
Said Shearouse: “As it has in the past, the Effingham County Board of Education willingly listens to the concerns of all stakeholders. We truly need and welcome everyone’s involvement to continue our progress.”
Blanks said the NAACP wants to see all citizens treated equitably.
“If in fact equity is the school district policy and practice, with your stated aim being representation of all citizens, all students, all parents, we ask you, represent this population that is offended by these caricatures and these artifacts,” he said. “Yet these symbols are promoted, and they are offensive.
“When professional candidates consider our district, what will they see? At the current time, they will see artifacts of the Confederacy as a representation of who we are. We should do better. Do what is fair and honest concerning this practice. It is an impediment to our common unity.”
NAACP members reiterated their call for the school to dissociate itself from the Rebels, the Confederate soldier emblem, the Confederate battle flag and “Dixie” as a fight song.
“The battle is not for us alone,” Lloyd said, “but for all true freedom-loving Americans living in Effingham County. We desire an Effingham where all citizens can live without fear, without racism, with the freedom to live, work and play in peace and harmony. We do not believe displaying the Confederate flag and the symbols of the Confederacy perpetuate that ideal.”
Johnson said the NAACP may bring the matter to the attention of SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, that accredits local school districts.
“This is far from over,” Lloyd said, “and we are not going quietly in the night. Parents are outraged and may pull their children from band and the playing fields.”
Effingham County opened its football season Friday with a win at Rebel Field with no turmoil or unrest.
“Fortunately, even with the distractions outside of school this past week, our student body has behaved admirably,” Shearouse said. “They have pride in Effingham County High School and respect for each other.”