MEMPHIS — At a ho-hum University of Mississippi football game in 1973, my junior year, two fellow black students decided to make a bold political statement -- and stir up a little outrage -- in the stands.
They grabbed a Confederate battle flag, a staple at all Ole Miss games in those days, and set it on fire near their feet.
Several people responded with angry stares, but no one said much to them and the furor they were hoping for never materialized. After a few seconds, the fire burned itself out and that was that.
Although I admired my friends for their courage and defiance, I was not a party to their anti-flag protest.
Really, I wasn't.
I was on campus strictly to earn a journalism degree ASAP, find a job and move on. I mostly steered clear of campus politics and social activism.
I accepted the fact that the baby steps Ole Miss was making to improve the racial climate on campus were just that -- baby steps. After all, the first two African-American football players in the school's history -- Ben Williams and James Reed -- had just joined the team the previous year.
The band played "Dixie" practically every other minute, and the relatively small number of black students on campus at the time mostly kept to ourselves and leaned on each other for support.
Our acceptance by white students and the mostly white faculty and administration grew noticeably each year I was there. But I always knew that substantive change would take time and another generation or two.
I've been reminded of my mostly happy days strolling through the Grove as I've observed the recent debate and public angst over permanently replacing the Ole Miss mascot, Colonel Reb.
The student body is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to approve a student-led effort to develop a new mascot for the school. The administration retired Colonel Reb as the official mascot at all sporting events in 2003.
Students on Tuesday will have two options, approving a new mascot or not having one at all. Returning the old mascot is not up for a vote.
Since Colonel Reb was deposed, Web sites and blogs have sprung up lamenting his demise and accusing the administration -- mainly former chancellor Robert Khayat -- of hypocrisy because Ole Miss has continued to cash in on the old man's image on school memorabilia.
But just as there may still be some who want to continue fighting the Civil War, plenty of Ole Miss loyalists simply can't let Colonel Reb die in peace.
That's all about to change on Tuesday. Today's Ole Miss student body is getting a fabulous chance to start something new. To come up with its own unique image of what an Ole Miss Rebel should be in the 21st century.
Here's a chance for the creative talent and open minds currently on campus to develop a lasting symbol of Ole Miss' valor, strength, tenacity, even defiance.
Here's a chance for the image of an elderly Southern white gentleman with gray hair to give way to a more menacing, muscular rebel with a modern cause that says "defeat me if you can."
The Colonel Reb mascot had only been shuffling along the sidelines at football games since 1979. So the attachment wasn't all that enduring to begin with.
Besides, the most celebrated Rebel of them all, Archie Manning, agrees with the change.
I ran into Manning last week at Memphis International Airport and I asked him about the vote to replace Colonel Reb.
Manning said he hadn't followed the issue closely, but he understands why the old mascot needed to go.
In college sports, particularly when it comes to recruiting, image is everything.
Of the student vote on Tuesday, Manning said, "This is their opportunity to create something."
Despite its well-documented racial history, Ole Miss is a vastly different place today. Hundreds of African-American graduates, like me, proudly proclaim it as our university.
We enthusiastically cheer the sports teams, we show up on campus to speak to classes and student groups, and we hail the extreme makeover that has occurred at Mississippi's premier public university over the past 20 years.
The truth is, my allegiance to Ole Miss would not have wavered even if the mascot had stayed. Even today, I'm still not into much social activism.
But I admired the bold stance Khayat and others took in retiring the old man from campus events.
Now it's up to the students to come up with a new and improved Reb.
Don't blow it.
Otis L. Sanford is editor/opinion and editorials for The Commercial Appeal. Contact him at 529-2447 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.