Louisiana State University (LSU) and its sports programs are some of the best known and most popular in the United States. The football team, for example, has claimed several national championships, the baseball team has been a perennial powerhouse, and the men's basketball team has made the Final Four in addition to sending famed Shaquille O'Neal to the NBA. The sports mascot of the university is Mike the Tiger. The choice in mascot reflects an appreciation for Louisiana troops in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This army contained the principal military forces of the Confederate States Army.
The Tiger mascot and its moniker extend to the live mascot of the university as well. He is known as Mike the Tiger and there have been several tigers who served in this capacity throughout the decades. The name reflected the furious fighters of the Tiger Rifles (the name) and The Washington Artillery (tiger logo). These soldiers were known for their ferocity. Terry Jones, professor of history and author of Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia, commented on these troops, “By all accounts, the Louisiana Tigers were an infamous bunch of rough housers. Their ranks consisted mostly of ruffians, poor immigrant farmers, and mercenaries from foreign wars.” These stereotypes were designed to instill fear in the enemy and confidence in the unit's soldiers.
The name for these troops was in use even before the Civil War which gives credence to the notion that the mascot is not limited to that particular war. Dan Hardesty, author of LSU: The Louisiana Tigers, writes about this: “As far back as 1845, in the Mexican War, four different volunteer units from Louisiana used the nickname.” The nickname may have already been in use for other military conflicts, but its most endearing association is with the troops who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
That’s just the military history behind the nickname. The name was the product of choices made by members of the LSU community. LSU already had associations with Civil War veterans such as the first president of the university, David French Boyd. He fought alongside Louisiana troops so he was familiar with some men who made up the Fighting Tigers.
Students, alumni, and members of the public, view the mascot as a symbol of the historical oppression that was inflicted on African Americans. The football program was already growing in popularity when the naming occurred in the 1890s. This act can be interpreted as a reminder of the oppression African Americans faced as a wave of racial violence swept across Louisiana and neighboring states in the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s. Quite simply, LSU claimed a mascot that is fundamentally linked with white supremacy. There has been a petition on the website www.change.org seeking to have the mascot changed. The petitioner notes that the decision to name the team the Tigers was made at during the oppressive Jim Crow era.
As historians Charles Reagan Wilson, Karen L. Cox, and many others inform us, white southerners a generation removed from the Civil War began to rewrite the history of that conflict. They did so by forming an alternative facts narrative about the war, which toyed with the causes of the conflict as a states' rights issue. The white southerners who came of age in the 1890s and early 1900s viewed their elders' participation in the Civil War as an example of southern pride and heroism, and memorialization societies such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy funded statues and monuments. Instead of emphasizing the role slavery played in the southern rebellion, these memorial groups ignore it or claim that slaves were loyal to their owners until the Union Army invaded the South. At that point, UDC types claim, the slaves became disloyal. In other words, memorialization groups have perpetuated a Lost Cause ideology that conceals white supremacist viewpoints held by pro-Confederate white southerners.
Many Louisianans today believe that the Fighting Tigers name attached to LSU is not a big problem. Many say that Confederate soldiers from Louisiana had little to no stake in the slavery question. “The Louisiana Tigers were not slave owners. They were the poorest Irish immigrants who performed such backbreaking and dangerous manual labor that the slave owners of the time didn’t even want their slaves to do it because their lives were considered more valuable.”
While this may be true, does the honor of these people outweigh the legacy of the war and its destructive impact on an entire race of people?
Currently, efforts are being made by individuals to have the mascot changed to something less offensive. Much like how universities and sports programs are altering teams with Native American imagery, teams dedicated to Civil War figures need to consider removing their respect for the legacy. The Fighting Tigers of LSU will continue to bear this name especially since there are people out there who are unaware of the Civil War connections it has.