The school board met last week in Slayton, Minn., to talk about the Confederates in the gymnasium.
Confederates were in the halls, too, and embroidered across the band uniforms, welcoming you to Murray County Central, Home of the Rebels.
Confederate statues and flags are tumbling down around the country. But the debate over what to do with Minnesota’s baffling number of Rebel-themed school mascots has dragged on longer than the Civil War itself.
There are more schools with Rebel mascots than Vikings mascots in Minnesota. Here, in a state as far north of the Mason-Dixon Line as you can go without hitting Canada. A state that lost more than 2,500 of its soldiers to disease and Confederate bullets.
Murray County Central is one of the few districts willing to take a hard look at its mascot.
“Do you find Rudy the Rebel offensive in any way?” said Murray County Central Superintendent Joe Meyer, reading from a questionnaire that went out to students, teachers and parents in this small school district, tucked into the rolling farmland and prairie of southwestern Minnesota. “Do you find the name ‘Rebels’ offensive in any way? Does it make you feel uncomfortable?”
The results came back last Monday, and 96% of the high schoolers said they had no problem with Rudy; 95% were comfortable self-identifying as Rebels.
There are about 740 students in the district. Nearly all of them are white.
Brett Gaul was fine with it too, back when he was a student and MCC was a new high school uniting a county that had been torn apart by a killer storm.
An EF5 tornado raked across Murray County in 1992, smashing homes, businesses and one of the county’s two high schools. The district merged the damaged Chandler-Lake Wilson High — home of the Mustangs — with Slayton High — home of the Wildcats — and invited students to choose a new mascot for their new school.
The students went with Rebels. Mainly, Gaul said, in honor of the championship Runnin’ Rebels basketball team at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. The school adopted the name and a lightly altered version of UNLV’s Hey Reb mascot. Big hat, big chin, bigger gun, biggest mustache.
You can spend years looking at something without really seeing it.
Gaul graduated in 1995 and headed off to college. The more history classes he took, the more his old school mascot bothered him. But it didn’t really hit home until 2016, when the boys’ basketball team played a sectional game in Marshall, where Gaul lives and teaches philosophy at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Murray County has worked for years to separate its Rebel Pride from the Confederate rebels who enslaved humans and killed more than 2,500 Minnesota soldiers who marched off to fight them.
They tweaked Rudy the Rebel’s outfit, getting rid of the Confederate gray, getting rid of his gun.
Be respectful, they taught the children.
Be a Rebel.
But when Gaul looked over in the student section, he saw what Rebel really stands for.
“Somebody in the MCC student section was waving this purple and black Confederate flag,” he said.
Rebel Pride Confederate flags in the school colors, on sale from the booster club.
Tweak the mascot all you want. Everyone knows what Rebel really means.
“Even if you don’t see it [as a racist, white supremacist symbol], many people do,” Gaul said. “If you just reflect on the images and the name for just a little bit, you can easily get to why people would find it offensive, I think.”
Gaul drove back to his hometown and made his first pitch to the school board to ditch Rudy the Rebel. Four years later, he’s still asking.
“The right thing to do is retire this name and this mascot and come up with something better, that’s not offensive, that’s not a symbol of racism and white supremacy,” said Gaul, who has written letters, lobbied the school board and joined forces with other alumni who reclaim their school from a cartoon Confederate.
Ditching a mascot isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. MCC has estimated it could cost as much as $150,000 to erase Rudy the Rebel from school walls, vehicles, rugs, awnings, websites and uniforms. Band uniforms alone cost $400 a pop.
The easiest thing to do is nothing. The district is already coping with a pandemic and an uncertain school year ahead.
But 96% of the high school is fine with their child-friendly Confederate mascot.
If no one does anything, another generation will be associating Confederate symbols with harmless fun, with their Minnesota heritage, with being on the winning team.
Another generation will look without seeing.
Murray County Central is a better school than that. Murray County, Minn., is a better place than that.
The good news is, Minnesota schools have gotten much better at picking mascots everyone can cheer.
The Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms! The Moorhead Spuds!
Hold a mascot contest, charge people per vote, and pretty soon those new band uniforms will pay for themselves.
Please don’t be a Rebel.