Students protest as Utah lawmakers resist changing ‘Dixie’

A sign made in support of HB 278, Name Change Process for Dixie State University, is ready to load onto a charter bus in St. George, Utah, bound for Salt Lake City, Feb. 24, 2021 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — At a university in southern Utah, the nationwide protests against racial injustice have lent new momentum to change a name that many consider offensive: Dixie State.

But the moniker’s deep ties to local history are fueling a backlash at the GOP-dominated state Legislature and showing how difficult change can be.

Students from the fast-growing institution drove hours to gather at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday and urge lawmakers to revive a stalled plan to change the school’s name.

“When people who don’t belong to the university are wanting their voices to overpower ours, it just doesn’t seem fair to us,” Savannah Snyder, a junior studying elementary education, said on the Capitol steps.

They have a powerful ally in Republican House Speaker Brad Wilson. He made the economic case for changing the name in a series of tweets Tuesday night, citing reports from major local companies that the term’s historical connections to the Deep South and slavery have hurt their employees and recruitment.

I believe now is the right time to make this change,” Wilson wrote on Twitter.

Dixie State graduates looking for jobs outside the local area have found the name is a stumbling block on their resume, said Student Body President Penny Mills.

The proposal has led to a rare impasse with Wilson’s counterpart in the state Senate, where lawmakers have so far refused to give a hearing to the name change.

Republican Senate President Stuart Adams told reporters Wednesday that the bill is expected to be heard in committee and negotiations are ongoing to ensure the community can have additional input.

The Dixie State name has vocal support among people in its home of St. George, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City, and they’ve been putting pressure on lawmakers to leave it alone.

Dixie was a nickname for the region dating back to when settlers with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dreamed of growing cotton a century ago. Supporters say it should be considered separate from the history of the Confederacy.

“We’re not in that bunch. If this was Alabama or Georgia or somewhere else, it would be a different story but we’re not,” said Tim Anderson, a St. George attorney who opposes the name change.

The school did once use Confederate symbols and iconography, with a Rebel mascot and a statue of a Confederate soldier on campus. Decades ago, students participated in mock slave auctions and blackface minstrel shows.

The mascot, though, was changed in 2009 and the statute came down in 2012. Still, administrators resisted changing the name, citing broad community support, when the institution became a university a year later.

But that changed last summer, as a national movement to remove Confederate symbols from public spaces became part of the national reckoning on racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

The local hospital voted to remove Dixie from its name, and the Utah university’s board of trustees followed. But because it’s a public institution, the Legislature has to sign off as well.

“Out of respect for our students and the hard work they put into earning their degrees, the University feels it is paramount that the bill is heard on the Senate floor this year,” university spokesman Jordon Sharp said in a statement.

At least 160 Confederate symbols and monuments were taken down or moved from public spaces last year around the country, according to a new count by Southern Poverty Law Center shared with The Associated Press Tuesday.

But there are still more than 2,100 Confederate symbols standing across the U.S., 704 of which are monuments. Dixie State isn’t officially part of that tally, but similar dynamics are playing out around the country, especially in rural areas, said law center chief of staff Lecia Brooks.

There are statewide policies on the books protecting Confederate-era monuments in southern states such as Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Virginia last year amended a similar law to let local governments take statues down.

A few dozen students holding yellow signs that read “Please change the name” and “Let the bill be heard” stood on the Utah Capitol steps on Wednesday. They chanted “Take it to the floor” as wet snow fell from cloudy gray skies. Two counter protestors held signs that read “Honor the name Dixie” and “Respect the name Dixie.”

“What’s holding them back is they want the community to be on board but students are part of the community,” said Abigail Scherzinger, chief of staff of the student association. “We don’t want to change the name but we have to because it’s affecting students and it’s affecting their futures.”

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Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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