By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
JACKSON — The University of Mississippi’s drama over a mascot used to be considered a family affair — perhaps amusing to Mississippi State fans, but a matter that didn’t affect many people outside Ole Miss.
Now, it could become every voter’s business.
Ole Miss introduced a new mascot, Rebel Black Bear, in 2010 to replace Colonel Reb, the goateed old gentlemen who’d been banned from the sidelines since 2003 because some saw him as a racially insensitive remnant of longing for Mississippi’s long-gone plantation days. Many fans saw Colonel Reb as simply an avuncular, big-headed mascot, and his banishment was not universally popular.
This past January, Rep. Mark DuVall, D-Mantachie, introduced a bill to require Ole Miss to bring back Colonel Rebel and to require the band to play “Dixie” and a similar song, “From Dixie With Love,” during football and basketball games.
“To me, a colonel is a leader,” DuVall told The Associated Press. “The same as Colonel Sanders is the leader of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Rebel is a leader of the Rebel nation.”
The bill generated some talk but died. Lawmakers said they shouldn’t micromanage schools’ decisions about mascots or songs.
Now, the Colonel Reb Political Action Committee wants to make the mascot an issue for the entire state.
Arthur Randallson of Southaven, the PAC’s director, said the mascot election by the Ole Miss student body, which resulted in the Black Bear, was unfair because Colonel Reb was left off the ballot. He believes the old man “would have won in a landslide.”
“That’s why there was fear of having Colonel Reb on the ballot ... students, fans and alumni would have voted for it,” said Randallson, an Ole Miss graduate student in Southern studies.
But should a school mascot be ensconced in the state constitution?
“The statewide voters pay their tax revenue to the funding of Ole Miss. They have earned by their tax dollars the right to have a say in this issue,” Randallson said.
Three initiatives will be on ballot this Nov. 8 — restricting eminent domain, requiring voter ID and defining life as beginning at fertilization. It will be at least a year before the mascot initiative could come up for a vote.
Getting an initiative on the ballot can be tricky. State law requires voters’ signatures to be divided equally among the five U.S. House districts Mississippi used during the 1990s: in the northeast, the Delta, east-central, southwest and the Gulf Coast. The Legislature can draw its own proposal to submit to voters along with the original initiative.
Randallson said the Colonel Reb PAC has gathered almost 10,000 signatures since starting the effort last month. At least 89,285 are needed.
Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone hasn’t commented on the initiative but has said he wants Ole Miss fans to unite: “We are too small of a school to compete with the big schools to be splintered.”
The Colonel Reb initiative is one of four petition drives still active, according to the secretary of state’s office. The others would:
— Prohibit laws forcing a person or employer to participate in a health care system or plan. Steven Palazzo was one of two GOP state lawmakers to file the proposal, before he was elected to Congress last November. Palazzo acknowledged when the ballot initiative was filed that it may duplicate efforts by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour to repeal a provision of the federal health care overhaul. But Palazzo said the law should be attacked from every angle.
— Require people receiving public assistance, as well as contractors and subcontractors and state employees, to undergo random drug testing.
— Provide that the state and its residents don’t have to obey any unconstitutional directives from any level of government.