While the West Spartanburg County branch of the NAACP considers whether to call for District Five Schools to remove the Rebels nickname from Byrnes High School, multiple pro-Rebels rallies are being organized.
One is planned in front of the school in Duncan on Monday evening just as the local NAACP branch convenes a meeting across town with the issue on its agenda.
The district isn’t considering a change of the nickname the school has had since its founding in 1955, but Terry Moore, a 1973 Byrnes High graduate who lived through school integration, says it should.
Since Dylann Storm Roof, a white 21-year-old who used the Confederate flag to identify with racist ideals, was charged with shooting nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last month, symbols of the Confederacy have been removed and become targets for vandalism across the South.
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South Carolina legislators removed the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds last week.
Byrnes High School used to display a Confederate soldier as its mascot while students waved the Confederate flag and the band played “Dixie,” but that was stopped in 1991 after the school had become the focus of national media attention. Several students were suspended from school that year for wearing clothing featuring the Confederate flag, which is against district policy, and protests followed while a federal lawsuit was filed by some students’ parents.
That lawsuit was dropped by the courts, and a racially diverse committee ultimately recommended the board remove the flag, song and mascot from sporting events, but the Rebels name remained.
“Not everyone is comfortable with that name,” Moore said. “It just brings up painful memories. With the recent deaths of those nine innocent people in Charleston and everything that’s happened, maybe this is time for the discussion.”
Melissa Robinette, the public relations director for District Five Schools, said a formal request would have to be filed for the issue to be discussed at the school board’s next meeting in August.
District Five superintendent Scott Turner issued a statement that read, in part, “As always, the district strongly supports its anti-discrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination in both employment and any District Five program or activity based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age or color.”
Jim McMillan, whose brother, sister and daughters attended Byrnes, and Michelle Wiles, another local resident, formed the Save Our Byrnes Rebels Facebook group on Sunday night, and within 24 hours it had 2,400 members. It had more than 4,400 members as of 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Alumni and current students who are white and black have posted messages supporting the Rebels nickname there, and online petitions calling for the name to remain have been posted.
McMillan said “Rebel” comes from a nickname of Gov. James F. Byrnes, the school’s namesake, and he sees no cause for it to change.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with the Confederacy,” McMillan said. “A rebel is someone who is willing to stand up for what’s right even if it’s not popular at the time. A rebel to James F. Byrnes High School is a spirit. If you drive through the community, you see the flags flying in Duncan and Lyman with ‘Rebels’ on them. It’s unity-builder. It’s something that the whole community takes pride in.”
“Being a person who moved here, I can see what the spirit of being a Rebel is,” said Wiles. “It’s about pride. It’s not about prejudice. It’s not about racism. It’s not about slavery. It’s about being a team.
“People don’t want that to go away. Their parents and grandparents are Rebels. That’s their heritage. It would be an injustice to the alumni, to the people of this community, to remove the Rebel mascot name.”
The group is planning a rally at the school July 23 to show support for the name.
“We just want to get ahead of the curve here and make sure the school board understands the alumni will not stand by idly and let this happen,” McMillan said.
“At the NAACP we support removing anything that is going to be racially offensive or oppressive to any of our citizens, but we fought this battle before and we got the Confederate soldier removed and we got the waving of the flag removed,” said Barbara Jones, the president of the West Spartanburg NAACP, whose children attended Byrnes. “I was on the executive board at the time that this occurred. I wish we had done it all at one time and not have to revisit it again.”
Moore said the issue would’ve never come up if Florence Chapel School had been better incorporated into Byrnes with the schools’ merger in 1969, legislated by federal laws prohibiting segregation, but Byrnes kept its name and identifying symbols.
Moore played junior varsity basketball with a confederate flag on his uniform.
“There are people who feel adamantly on both sides of it, and that’s fine,” he said. “I just think the side that it’s offensive to has not been heard. Some people misconstrue that silence is consent. Some people are silent but not necessarily in agreeance.”