ARAB, Ala. – The fight over Confederate symbolism has landed in an Alabama town where education leaders have banned the high school marching band from playing "Dixie" as the fight song.
Dozens of opponents of the decision packed a city school board meeting Thursday night in support of the tune, which they depict as a traditional part of the soundtrack of life in their small, Southern town rather than an ode to the days of slavery in the Old South.
"We're from Alabama, we're not from New York," said Daniel Haynes, 36, who attended Arab (AY-rab) High School and loves hearing the tune played after the Knights score a touchdown.
Board members didn't budge. The 750-student school has a new principal, band director, football coach and stadium this year, said Superintendent John Mullins, and the change was needed in a system where the core values include mutual respect and unity.
"I really think it's the right decision for the right reason at the right time," Mullins said in an interview.
Supporters of the song say they'll now take their complaints to the City Council, which appoints the five-member school board, but it's unclear what might happen next. An old R&B song, "The Horse," has temporarily replaced "Dixie" in the band's repertoire until a new fight song is selected.
Passions are running high among some in Arab, where many are still upset by school leaders' decision a few years ago to comply with a Supreme Court decision and end student-led Christian prayers over the public address system before football games. Complaints about "Dixie" have renewed the debate over the role of religion in pregame ceremonies.
"I like 'Dixie,' but I'm here for prayer," said Shane Alldredge, who attended the board meeting wearing a T-shirt that said "Put Dixie and prayer back in the game."
Community college history teacher Russ Williams told the board he loves "Dixie" and other elements of Southern history, but the song "isn't worth the controversy" if it causes others pain.
The "Dixie" debate isn't brewing just in Arab, an overwhelmingly white town of about 8,200 people that's 70 miles (112 kilometers) north of Birmingham. Fans of the tune also are complaining in Glade Spring, Virginia, after leaders there prohibited the band from playing "Dixie" during games this fall at Patrick Henry High School.
Written by Ohio native Daniel D. Emmett, "Dixie's Land" was first performed on stage in New York in 1859, two years before the Civil War, said historian and musician Bobby Horton, who performed some of the music for Ken Burns' epic miniseries "The Civil War."
"It was written as what they called a walk-around tune ... for a minstrel show. It was like a tune between acts," said Horton.
Later known simply as "Dixie," the song became an unofficial anthem of the rebel states after it was played at the inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1861. President Abraham Lincoln loved the tune and asked for it to be played at the White House the night Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, said Horton.
University and high school bands across the South played "Dixie" for generations, but the practice waned as complaints rose about the song being a painful, racially insensitive reminder of the oppression of slavery.
The University of Mississippi's "Pride of the South" marching band excluded the song from its playlist in 2016, and the Marching Rebels band of Robert E. Lee High School in Midland, Texas, quit playing "Dixie" last year.
Southern historian Wayne Flynt, who remembers the song being sung in segregated schools in Alabama in the 1940s when he was a boy, said some view it as an anthem of regional pride. But "Dixie" and other Confederate emblems became symbols of white defiance as legalized segregation came under attack during the civil rights era, he said.
"I would argue that Dixie is not necessarily an inherently racist song. It can certainly be a racist song. The way in which it's been used ... tends to accelerate the understanding of it nationally as a racist song," Flynt said.
This summer in Arab, Mullins released a statement saying the song was being dropped because it has "negative connotations that contradict our school district's core values of unity, integrity, and relationships."
The song hadn't previously been an issue in Arab, which Census statistics show is more than 96 percent white. But through the years, the band didn't play the song when visiting more diverse schools, officials said.
School board members have publicly supported Mullins' decision to give up "Dixie."
The board president, former Arab football coach Wayne Trimble, said his views were shaped by an incident from the late 1970s when an opposing head coach said he wasn't sure he could convince players on his team to make the trip to Arab because of "Dixie."
"That has stuck with me a long time," Trimble said in an interview. "Is that the way we want Arab to be perceived?"
Associated Press writers Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, and Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.