JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — Students at the University of Mississippi vote Tuesday on whether to replace their American football team mascot Colonel Reb — a caricature of a white plantation owner, dumped in a 2003 effort to distance the school from racist stereotypes.
It's all part of an effort to remove past racial tensions that date back to 1962, when a deadly riot followed James Meredith's attempt to become the university's first black student.
The university, known as Ole Miss, has struggled for more than a decade with how to retain tradition while shedding symbols of the Old South, stretching back to slavery though the Civil War, racial segregation and the modern civil rights struggles.
Students will have only two choices in Tuesday's online referendum: yes, replace the colonel with something else or no, remain the only school in the Southeastern Conference without a mascot.
In a region where football is akin to religion, and sports symbolism carries the power of a totem, this is no small matter. Stories about the upcoming vote have run prominently in the campus newspaper for weeks, along with "Save Colonel Reb" advertisements.
"We're tired of having nothing to represent us," said Josh Hinton, a member of the Associated Student Body, which approved a resolution calling for the vote. "We've gotten our song taken away. We want to have some kind of tradition back."
In 1997, the school ended the waving of the flag of the pro-slavery Confederate army at sporting events. Then Colonel Reb was booted off the field. Last year, the band stopped playing the fight song, "From Dixie with Love," to discourage the fan chant, "The South will rise again."
Koriann Porter, a black student who collected more than 1,700 signatures in support of a new mascot, said much has changed on campus since the civil rights era. The school has clubs devoted to embracing its diversity, and 15 percent of the 18,344 students are black. The state has a black population of 37.2 percent.
Not everybody is a happy with the changes.
Richard McKay, vice president of the Associated Student Body, said he had received some hate e-mail about the vote.
"We've gotten a lot of input whether it was asked for or not," said McKay, who is white. "A lot of students are afraid that as soon as we have a new mascot, everyone will forget about Colonel Reb."
Still, Colonel Reb hasn't disappeared altogether from the university. Ole Miss holds the license to the image so it's still on bumper stickers, lapel pins and other merchandise on display at Rebel games.
Other vestiges of the Old South can also be found on campus. The Mississippi state flag, with its Confederate battle emblem, is still flown and the team nickname remains the Rebels, adopted in 1936 after a group of sports writers voted to replace the Flood. That won't change even if the mascot does.
Ole Miss isn't the only Southern university that still winces over a painful heritage.
At the University of Alabama last year, an event involving members of the Kappa Alpha Order dressed as Confederate soldiers drew complaints from a black sorority. The fraternity later apologized.
In Louisiana, Nicholls State University reinvented its colonel mascot in 2009 after retiring the previous "Col. Tillou" amid concern that the figure recalled a uniformed Confederate officer.
While the university has made it clear there's no going back to the goateed Colonel Reb, his fans remain loyal and vocal.
"The majority of students I talked to feel they'd rather have no mascot if they can't have Colonel Reb, and that's going to be evident," said Hannah Loy, who is in her last year. She's part of the Colonel Reb Foundation, which is urging students to vote "no" to a new mascot.
A variation of the colonel first appeared in the 1930s in a yearbook. The image of the white character in a red wide-brimmed hat and tuxedo, leaning on a cane, is believed to have been based on a black man named Blind Jim Ivy, who attended most of the school's athletic events, according to school historian David Sansing. The colonel made the official transition to the field in 1979.
Hinton says he's been searching the Internet for ideas on a new image to replace him. He thinks a riverboat gambler or a colonial soldier modeled on a New England patriot could work. McKay said there's been some talk about using a cardinal in a nod to the Cardinal Club, a school spirit organization that was recently revived. The club, started in 1927, uses a logo featuring the bird.
Chancellor Dan Jones said the administration will support whatever decision the students make.
They're not the only ones closely watching the vote. Alum Bob Dunlap, 80, who's in the tire business, said he has donated about $1 million to Ole Miss athletics over the years, but he'll likely stop if Colonel Reb is removed from the campus entirely. He said the vote is unnecessary.
"Everybody liked that little guy at those ball games," Dunlap said. "They just create a lot of bad feeling when they do these type of things."