How the Confederate Flag and Johnny Rebel Fell at Anaheim's Savanna High School

Savanna High School's stars and bars
Savanna High School's stars and bars

The Confederate flag still flies high above South Carolina's state capitol building a week after the massacre of nine blacks at a Charleston church by a bowl-cut bigot. But the racist "Stars and Bars" is coming under increasing fire in the wake of terror. Walmart, Target and other big box stores are pulling the flag from its stores; Alabama's governor ordered them quietly drawn down.

One place the Confederate flag waved far from Dixie for decades far without much protest is this reporter's alma mater, Savanna High School in Anaheim.

Southern nostalgia, from magnolia trees to a plaque honoring Emma Sansom (the teenage girl who helped KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest) in SanTana, is nothing new to this county founded by Klan members. Surely, decking out Savanna High School in rebel red and gray had to do with some slavery-lovin' school board member, right? Wrong. Students voted for the high school name to be known as "The Home of the Rebels" after its founding in 1961, instead of "The Surfers."

Savanna ran with it, and the Stars and Bars became a ubiquitous part of the school's iconography instead of hanging in some hick's garage. It went on without protest until black parents finally had enough in 1990 and asked the flag be removed. That's when The New York Times weighed in with an article on student activism echoing the spirit of the 1960s. Everywhere else in the nation, teenagers stood up and fought the good fight...except in Anaheim! Led by student Denise Gay, classmates walked out, not in solidarity with black folk, but because Savanna planned to phase out its hard on for the Confederacy!

Ding, dong, Johnny Reb is gone! (Now scrap the colors, cannons and cartoon mascot)
Ding, dong, Johnny Reb is gone! (Now scrap the colors, cannons and cartoon mascot)
Gabriel San Roman / OC Weekly

"Ms. Gay says the flag embodies school spirit, not anti-black sentiment," the Gray Lady explained, "and she is pleased that her small protest earned her a chance to explain her views to the principal, who she said was sympathetic." Meanwhile other students told the Orange County Register that the Black Student Union "gripe[s] about little things." That sounds just like all the slack-jawed yokels yammering now about the Stars and Bars as an emblem of pride and heritage, not slavery! Sure...

The Confederate flag continued to wave during pep rallies by the time I got to Savanna in the late 1990s. A statue of Johnny Rebel stood defiantly in the middle of the quad. And, as I stretched for basketball practice one day, my redneck athletic director hung a banner in the gym reading "Confederacy Hall." I wrote an essay against the flag for my English class, and my teacher asked my fellow schoolmates what they felt about it. Their response? A collective "meh."

But all of that was soon to change.

The beginning of the end came during a boys' basketball CIF playoff home game in 1999. That's when us Rebels were set to square off against the Compton High Tarbabes. Both school principals thought it a good time to talk over the offensive emblem painted on the gym walls. Cheerleader-painted posters awkwardly covered Savanna's shameful symbol when visiting black students from Compton High filled the rafters. The Stars and Bars was slowly phased out in the following years.

Johnny Rebel stood tall long after the Confederate flag's fall. The quad statue finally came down in 2009 due to disrepair with JR's face rusted and covered in seagull shit. A last-ditch effort to restore it would have cost $45,000. An art teacher launched an online effort to do just that, with a weak-salsa petition rallying all of 22 signatures in support. The statue died a necessary death just this year when the school board wisely rejected the proposal.

It's a fitting end to those hanging on to symbols of a losing cause.

Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2

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