Mississippi's Colonel Reb: Gone but not forgotten

Race, football and Obamacare: Conservative talk radio brings all great things together

Topics: Race, Football,

Mississippi's Colonel Reb: Gone but not forgotten"Colonel Reb," former mascot for the University of Mississippi college football team

Like most liberal Berkeley, Calif. residents, I am an avid follower of Southeastern Conference college football, which means I often find myself spending my lunch hour catching up on the latest news about tree poisonings in Auburn or Lane “Lame” Kiffen’s cheating escapades at Tennessee. But it’s just not every day that my consideration of LSU’s awesome defensive line is interrupted by new revelations about the intersection of Deep South college football and the conservative right-wing campaign to demonize Barack Obama as the Socialist Bringer-of-Death.

But hey, everything’s connected, right? Race, the Confederacy, conservative talk radio, the rise of the Republican South, health care, Jeremiah Wright, and college football? Of course it is.

The Ole Miss — University of Mississippi — college football team is suffering through its second horrible year in a row. At any SEC school, that’s a recipe for serious alumni dissatisfaction. But at Ole Miss, the heat is extraordinary. A group calling itself the “Forward Rebels” (Ole Miss’s nickname is “Rebels”) has been running full-page ads in local newspapers calling for new leadership and “change” at the university. The U. Miss. chancellor is lashing back at “anonymous, malicious and public attacks.” It’s a mess, but while the Forward Rebel ire is ostensibly aimed at athletic director Pete Boone’s responsibility for mismanaging the program, (and he does seems to be something of a buffoon,) it’s pretty clear that the bad fortunes of the Rebels aren’t the only, or even most important, reason for the disgruntlement. Culture war is alive and well in Mississippi.

According to long time Mississippi sports reporter Rick Cleveland, the breach between the alumni and Pete Boone dates back to the furor a few years back about the Ole Miss mascot “Colonel Reb.” Boone was largely responsible for ditching the mascot, and he had a pretty good reason — the perception that top African-American high school players were not crazy about the prospect of playing for a football team that routinely drenched itself in Confederate nostalgia.

Seriously, if I was a high school All-American 6 foot four 250 pound linebacker being recruited by every top football college in America, I’d probably have second thoughts about going to a school where the fans sing Dixie at the games, wave Confederate flags, and cheer a mascot representing a solider who defended the right to keep slavery legal in America.

But for Colonel Reb’s defenders, the theory about competitiveness is just a politically correct smokescreen by liberals who want to trample all over Ole Miss’ great traditions. Mississippi’s backward economy and also-ran status in the SEC explained the lack of top recruits — not the Confederacy trappings.

Rick Cleveland brought up the issue of Colonel Reb with the Forward Rebels spokesman, Lee Habeeb.

Said Lee Habeeb, “As far as Colonel Rebel, we don’t have a dog in that hunt. Our people aren’t driven by that.”

Habeeb also said, “At the same time, this is an administration that makes decisions unencumbered by how the public feels.”

Make of that statement what you may.

And here’s where the story breaks out of the football/race box.

Lee Habeeb is a mogul of conservative talk radio. He was responsible for bringing Laura Ingraham to national prominence, and he is the “Network Director of Strategic Content” for the Salem Radio Network, which boasts a who’s who of right wing blowhards on its roster, including Bill Bennett, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt.

According to Habeeb’s Wikipedia page, Habeeb has “commissioned several hit YouTube videos,” including one on Barack Obama’s relationship with Pastor Jeremiah Wright — titled “Is Obama Wright?” — that ran during the 2008 election campaign. He’s also “produced the video ‘Is Nationalized Health Care a Death Snare?’ about the effects a government takeover of health care would have on both beginning of life and end of life issues.”

If you are a liberal resident of Berkeley, California, you probably think that Lee Habeeb is the definition of bad news. And I’ll be perfectly frank: learning that he is the spokesman for a group that feels that the University of Mississippi administration “makes decisions unencumbered by how the people feels” certainly makes it easy for me to decide who to root for in this gridiron showdown. But the larger symbolic meaning of this debacle is a heck of a lot more profound than any SEC won-lost record.

The rise of the Republican-dominated South as a direct consequence of Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights legislation is one of the most important political developments of the past half-century. Southern Republicans are the backbone of a party that has grown ever more conservative and reactionary. Conservative talk radio aids, abets, and enables this right-wing calcification, a process that has utterly crippled the Obama administration’s agenda.

Mississippi, a state as stained by slavery’s legacy as any in the nation — is where all the pieces fit together. Don’t listen to Habeeb’s equivocations — the squabble over Colonel Reb undoubtedly feeds alumni dissatisfaction, just as Obama’s skin color feeds criticism of his legitimacy.

It’s a cliche to say the North may have won the Civil War, but we’re still fighting it today in 21st century. But when you connect the dots between Southern Republican resistance to Obama and the fight over Colonel Reb in Mississippi, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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