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Held Hostage (Editorial)

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On June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist who posted online photos of himself waving a Confederate flag and hoped to ignite a race war, fatally shot nine African-Americans as they prayed in a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

A few days later, the Fort Smith School Board recommended finally ending the use of Confederate symbols at Southside High School, specifically the rebel mascot and “Dixie” fight song. “A resolution affirming the move passed unanimously the next month to a round of cheers from a rare maximum-capacity crowd,” the Southwest Times-Record reported.

But Fort Smith lawyer Joey McCutchen was having none of it. He has agitated against the change so relentlessly that last week the Fort Smith School District’s longtime athletic director, Jim Rowland, announced his resignation after 53 years with the district.

“There is no doubt that change like this can be controversial,” Rowland told a board meeting last week. “But in our case, we have seen one individual motivated by questionable motives, including a thirst for power and publicity, use the mascot issue to incite a small number of followers to turn a whole community against its school representatives.”

Rowland said that rebel backers had used social media “as the most vile weapon, presenting half-truths, innuendoes and outright lies to discredit those who have worked long and hard to make a better school district.”

“In all of my years as a coach and as an administrator, I’ve never seen such a poisonous atmosphere …,” he said.

Businesspeople, entrepreneurs and others generally seek to avoid a “poisonous atmosphere.” Fort Smith can’t expect to attract the kind of economic development enjoyed just a few miles up the road in northwest Arkansas as long as it’s held hostage by people who think the future is in the past.

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