Students dump a racist symbol

August 17, 2017

Matthew Gordon, a graduate of South Burlington High School in Vermont, reports on a struggle led by students to change the schools' offensive name for sports teams.

WHEN STUDENTS at South Burlington High School in Vermont successfully organized to change the name of their sports teams, they expected some resistance. But they didn't expect that those who opposed them would lash out with death threats, stalking and other forms of racist harassment.

In February, the school board of South Burlington voted unanimously to get rid of the name "Rebels"--a reference to the Confederacy that has been the official name of the high schools' sports teams since it was founded. Until the 1970s, the school used the Confederate Flag as an unofficial symbol, and a Confederate soldier mascot named "Captain Reb" wasn't retired until the early 1990s. With these Confederate symbols axed, the team name was the last standing.

Resistance to the school's racist traditions is nothing new. In 1964, an editorial appeared in a local newspaper denouncing the name. In the following decade, the NAACP intervened to change public opinion about the name, but met with limited success.

In the wake of the white supremacist massacre at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, the issue was again brought to the school board for the first time in decades, but the board voted--also unanimously--to retain the name at the time.

A new scoreboard for a new season at South Burlington High School
A new scoreboard for a new season at South Burlington High School

Instead of giving up, students organized.

A year later, Isaiah Hines, a Black student and activist at the school, attended another school board meeting to make the case that the time had come to change the name. He founded a Student Diversity Union to coordinate the fight for both the name change and broader issues of diversity.

With help from Black Lives Matter Vermont, the NAACP and other like-minded community members, these students continued the fight until they won. In the following months, the board settled on Wolves as the new name and mascot.

STORIES ABOUT high schools changing racist names are hardly new or unusual. Two schools in the same county as South Burlington High School have done so in the last couple decades, abandoning the names "Little Indians" and "Crusaders," and Southern states have seen regular conflicts over schools named after Confederate generals.

What makes the struggle in South Burlington notable is the participation of student activists in the adult-dominated field of public-school politics. These students didn't limit themselves to petition-signing or other warm-and-fuzzy activities often expected of teenagers.

They reached out to community organizations, gave speeches at events, and didn't hesitate to criticize the school. "The school has worked hard to hide its past from the community," said Isaiah Hines at a panel discussion on countering racist violence organized by the Vermont International Socialist Organization.

Equally striking was the conservative backlash. In the weeks following the school board decision in February, community members opposed to the name change began to organize through Facebook, calling themselves the Rebel Alliance.

Group founder Kiya Batmanglidj, in an interview with a local conservative website, warned that the name change was a threat to patriotism. If "a Native American student [thinks] the American flag is offensive because it represents oppression and genocide, does that then mean because that small group of people feels offended that we should then not fly the American flag at the school?" asked Batmanglidj.

The group quickly moved beyond incoherent racist rants on social media to tangible political organization, rallying behind Daniel Emmons and Marcy Brigham, two write-in candidates for the school board whose platform was singularly devoted to opposing the name change.

Fortunately, these candidates were unsuccessful--and both were fined by the Vermont Attorney General's office for campaign finance violations. Emmons later made news when he was charged with stalking and verbally threatening Isaiah Hines in person and on social media. "You guys have made a lot of people mad," he told the high school senior, adding that they were "shitting in the wrong yard."

THIS WASN'T the last time that opponents of the name change would threaten Hines. In late April, South Burlington High School was put on lockdown three days in a row due to anonymous threats of armed violence. The threat specifically named Isaiah Hines as a target for his role in the name change.

While the perpetrator of these threats was not linked to the Rebel Alliance, the group continued to inspire racist hatred and held the town hostage in other ways. Police charged one student with a felony for racist graffiti against Hines.

Meanwhile, the school budget, rarely a sticking point in the town, was defeated twice at the ballot box, driven largely by opposition to the name change.

On one of the days that the school was locked down, Hines and his supporters held a rally for peace and acceptance. At the same time, Rebel Alliance members, now with a Black student as their scapegoat, brought gifts to police officers to thank them for their service--at a lockdown their group may have inspired.

Though the school budget did eventually pass, it took cuts to special education, language arts and preschool programs to do so.

Opponents of the team name change often framed the issue as an economic one, lamenting the insignificant cost of repainting signs and replacing uniforms. The cut to the budget, on the other hand, represents a significant decrease of available funds at a time when the South Burlington teachers union is negotiating its next contract.

Between the school board's rejection of a fact-finder's recommendations about contract negotiations and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott's plans to undercut teachers unions across the state by launching an assault on their health care benefits, a strike seems increasingly likely.

South Burlington teachers went on strike four years ago, but failed to achieve their demands due to self-imposed isolation from the community and resistance from the same current that later filled the ranks of the Rebel Alliance. In this way, racism, ableism and anti-union sentiment--until recently overshadowed by statewide support for Bernie Sanders' presidential bid--has reared its ugly head.

THE STRUGGLE to combat racist hate can be seen in the heroic actions of Isaiah Hines and others who took the initiative when adults would not. They did so without any pre-existing organization, political experience and, most remarkably, without knowledge of the school's history of anti-racist resistance.

At the same time that the NAACP was fighting the "Rebel" name in the late 1960s and early '70s, it was also fighting against "Slave Day," the tradition of auctioning first-year students off to older students to carry books and perform other menial tasks. Despite the overwhelmingly white population of the school, the handful of Black students there organized successfully alongside the NAACP to end the practice.

Without knowing this history, today's student organizers repeated a similar feat in a new context.

What both this history and the current movement show is that young students don't have to wait until adulthood or college to become involved in the struggle against oppression. Like anyone else, they have power through collective action and cooperation with groups who share their goals.

This potential--combined with the help of established political groups--can lead to important victories. As South Burlington students, particularly students of color, leave summer vacation behind this month, they return to a school changed by their own actions, and hopefully with a sense of the power they wield in the struggles to come.

Battles around education have figured prominently in the wave of political polarization that has accompanied the election of Donald Trump. College campuses have been a primary manifestation of this, and for good reason: the lynching of a Black student at the University of Maryland, student protests of commencement speeches given by Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence, and the fight against right-wing bigotry at Middlebury College and Berkeley earlier this year have all put campus activism in the spotlight.

But younger students have not been isolated from the changing political climate, and teenage activists across the country can and should fight manifestations of oppression at the high school level.

Still, this victory must be just the beginning. From Charlottesville to Burlington, only a confident anti-racist movement uniting young students, unions and activists can face the twin threats of attacks on public education and the surge of right-wing terror.

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