Like virtually all societies throughout human history, we Americans have always romanticized our wars. The more significant the war, the more vivid the romance. We build legends and traditions around the wars and paint the combatants in boldly contrasting colors of good and evil.
If the enemies least like our own culture have been the easiest to paint, the participants of our Civil War are the hardest; the cultures of North and South, particularly in the mid-Atlantic region, were as alike as might have been possible. Armies didn't cross oceans to invade and then retreat back across those oceans when the fighting ended. Cousins fought cousins who spoke the same language and might have lived just a day’s ride apart.
Resentments lingered at that close proximity for generations afterward. So did legends that helped justify the grievances that led to the conflict.
If the Civil War were simply about the South’s quest for states’ rights and freedom from an oppressive federal government, surely we could at least all understand, if not agree. And Johnny Rebel would be the symbol of a reasonable point of view — dismissed by the blunt finality of war, perhaps, but otherwise worthy of legitimacy and respect.
Worthy, even, of emulation.
That must have been a primary justification for the Kern High School District’s decision in 1957 to name the mascot of its fourth Bakersfield high school, South High, the Rebels.
They went all in, too.
Members of the girls’ drill team, the Rebelettes, incorporated the Stars and Bars into their routines. The student yell leaders were Jody and Johnny Rebel. Sports teams wore gray, powder blue and red. Touchdowns were punctuated with a cannon blast of bluish smoke — all the more dramatic if that touchdown were scored against North High School, South’s primary rival, which had opened four years before.
The fight song was “Dixie." In 1957, south Bakersfield would have indeed been, as the song references, “the land of cotton.”
Local builders apparently bought into the enthusiasm because even some of the street names in a new, adjacent housing tract evoked Civil War imagery. They’re still there: Sumter Drive, named for the Union fort off the South Carolina coast whose shelling ignited the war. A few blocks east, directly behind the south end zone, the corner of Monitor and Merrimac, named for the two combatants in the famous Civil War naval battle that foretold submarine warfare. Streets named Fambrough, Shenandoah and Plantation — also the name of a feeder elementary school — are nearby.
All quaintly romantic if Johnny Reb did indeed simply represent freedom from oppression and subjugation, as had been the case with another, more successful rebellion 90 years before. But the fact is, the South’s slavery-driven economy was at the center of the war. Southern industry and commerce rode on the backs of enslaved African-Americans, and often cruelly so. If the war was about states’ rights, it was the rights of states to perpetuate an economic model that the nations of Western Europe had long since outlawed.
It’s easy to understand how South High students must have failed to grasp this at the time. They were teenagers and their school’s Confederate-lite campus culture revealed itself without the racial context of the real thing.
In 1966, a year after the Watts riots, Johnny Rebel was portrayed by James Ratcliff, “a very funny and outgoing young man,” according to South alum Jim Reynolds, who quarterbacked the 1968 football team. “He was elected by the student body (and) he did a great job, if I am any judge of mascots.”
Ratcliff was Black and not the only minority to serve in that enviable role over the years.
“I do not recall any racially motivated animosity surrounding any of this,” Reynolds maintained.
Perhaps not surrounding the mascot or team name, but South did experience student riots around that time, and by 1969 the Confederate flag and “Dixie” were gone from campus. The rest of South’s Confederate imagery remained.
And why shouldn’t it, Reynolds said.
“At some point, we've got to stop,” he said. “I was just looking at, for instance, the West High Vikings. These people are (named after) rapers, pillagers. We all know that — we've seen this (2019 ‘Who Were the Vikings’ documentary) series on TV. What are they doing with that (mascot) name? What about the (East) Blades? Come on, a knife?”
Theresa Souers, who graduated in 1972, said it was easy to get swept up in all the period-piece pageantry.
“At the time when we were singing ‘Dixie’ and waving the flag, it was fun,” she said. “I loved the tradition and the costumes and the whole thing about the South. But I was totally ignorant about slavery. Ignorant innocence, I guess you’d call it. To me it was South against the North. I wondered in hindsight why the adults hadn't done anything about it, but you can't change what’s been done.”
Souers, who's lived near Lake Tahoe for decades, said she assumed all of the Rebel imagery had been done away with.
But no: Six U.S. schools, including the University of Mississippi, still have the Rebel mascot, and, other than the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (the Runnin’ Rebels), South High is the only one west of the Mississippi.
Innocent ignorance only works as an excuse for as long as you’re truly innocent and ignorant. Those days are over.
Reynolds and his fellow South alumni might be well-served listening to another quarterback of that era: Jim Plunkett, who starred at Stanford at about the same time Reynolds was leading the Rebels, saw his alma mater switch from the Indians to the Cardinal in 1972, after Native American students approached the university administration about the issue.
“None of us ever thought the name was demeaning,” Plunkett said years later. “But why offend somebody if you don’t have to offend them?”