Southern Illinois Towns are Dealing with Racist Past

In 1995, the year after Gage Peach was born, his hometown of Benton was the site of a KKK rally on the square in front of the historical Franklin County Courthouse. Peach said it’s shocking that happened in his lifetime.

On June 6, Peach, now of West Frankfort, along with Kiersten Owens, of Benton, both of whom are white, organized a demonstration that drew about 60 people to that same location to call for justice and equality for black Americans. For nearly three hours, they held signs, chanted and paid respect to George Floyd, whose death in police custody in Minneapolis on Memorial Day has sparked demonstrations across the nation in cities big and small.

With the courthouse slated to be demolished and replaced, Peach said he felt that it was important “that we leave it with a good mark on history, that we’re all for equality. We don’t want Franklin County to be known for its racism. This is more about bringing the community together more than anything else.”

Joining people across the nation, hundreds have gathered across Southern Illinois in recent days to protest the death of Floyd, a black man who died after a white officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Not unexpectedly, the largest regional demonstrations have taken place in Carbondale, which is relatively diverse — about 40% of its population is people of color. Carbondale is no stranger to hosting large marches and protests, dating back to the civil rights and Vietnam War era. And it has hosted several Black Lives Matters marches and rallies over the past few years.

What seems to distinguish this moment’s push for racial justice in Southern Illinois is the number of gatherings that are taking place beyond the borders of the liberal-leaning university town. Familiar rally chants of “I can’t breathe,” “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter” have also been ringing out in small, conservative Southern Illinois towns like Benton and Anna, which are overwhelmingly white by historical design, and have remained stubbornly racially homogeneous for generations.

“I came to Carbondale as an SIU student in 1972,” said Carl Flowers, who is African American and a retired Southern Illinois University professor and administrator. “To see that there was a rally for the Black Lives Matter in Anna — that is one that I would have never suspected would ever, ever occur.” Anna’s rally, organized by young adults in Union County, drew about 200 people on June 4.

In recent days, people have also gathered in Marion, Herrin, Carterville, Sparta, Murphysboro, Du Quoin and Mounds. Mounds is a predominately African American community in Pulaski County, but the other towns are majority white.

Some of these communities — Benton, Herrin, Carterville, Anna — were “sundown towns” where, by official policy, black people were not allowed after dark into at least the 1960s in some cases, according to research by James W. Loewen, author of the book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.”

Though named for the town’s founder, a century or so ago, Anna became ANNA — an unofficial acronym for Ain’t No N------ Allowed, a clear message to African Americans that they weren’t welcome. In 1925, a funeral held for a Williamson County KKK leader and federal prohibition agent drew 15,000 people to Herrin, most dressed in full Klan regalia. For a period of time during this era, Carterville excluded black people from its city limits entirely — day or night. The KKK had a significant presence in Benton into at least the 1950s, according to Loewen’s research.

“To see some of those communities also coming together is revealing that times are a-changin’,” Flowers said. “People are realizing that all lives do matter — absolutely — but in this case, a black life should be included in all of those lives.”

The organizers of the events have been local residents who said they wanted to make a difference in their small towns. Nicholas Tate, an African American from Du Quoin, said it doesn’t require a big gathering to send a message of unity. He organized a one-man rally a week ago after work — and by the end of the day, about 20 others had spontaneously joined him. A second demonstration in Du Quoin took place Saturday evening at Keyes Park.

Korshawn Johnson, an African American who grew up in Williamson County, organized protests this week in Carterville and Herrin, because he said he wanted to bring the movement to places where rallies — and discussions about race relations — are less common. He also joined in the demonstration in Benton Saturday. “Carterville gave me hope. Herrin gave me another level of hope. But seeing Benton and being able to come to join them, it gave me all the hope that I honestly need,” he said.

William Perkins, a 74-year-old African American of Colp, said black people of his generation grew up being warned not to travel to places like Anna and Benton for their own safety.

For many decades, Perkins said the small village of Colp was among the few places where it was safe for blacks to live in Williamson County.

Perkins said the gatherings in the Williamson County towns of Marion, Carterville and Herrin last week were uplifting. “It’s amazing to me that there’s as many whites out at these rallies in these various towns,” he said. “That’s just really got me. Our story is being told, in more ways than just as it relates to police.”

The local demonstrations mirror those taking place in large cities across America protesting the death of Floyd. The officer who was filmed unwavering in lifting his knee from Floyd’s neck as he gasped for air and cried out for his mom has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter; three other officers also on the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

Perkins said that some white people don’t seem to understand what the demonstrations are about — he’s heard them say justice has already been served by the arrests, and therefore there’s nothing to protest. But the injustices that African Americans have endured for centuries in this country have not been rectified. Racism, Perkins said, has not gone away.

Black Americans are still underrepresented in politics and workplaces. The COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately resulted in the deaths of African Americans has highlighted long-standing health disparities. Inequities in education funding have left many majority black schools, where large numbers of students live in poverty, with few resources, while majority white suburban districts have flourished. In majority-black cities and neighborhoods across America, families often live with failing infrastructure and environmental hazards.

High-profile events like what happened to Floyd — caught on film — serve as a reminder of how far the country still has to go to create a society that is just and inclusive for people of color, Perkins said. The rallies bring more awareness to the concerns of black Americans. But making change requires a lot of hard work by people of all races once the excitement of the moment fades away.

Pepper Holder, a 71-year-old African American of Carbondale, said black Southern Illinoisans have been fighting for many years to help ensure younger people of color have equitable access to job opportunities, especially in government and taxpayer-funded contract jobs. Too many times, those efforts have fallen short because black families lack the political capital held by many of Southern Illinois’ white families, who haven’t been eager to share opportunities, especially as economies have tightened.

“I am really appreciative and happy that other small towns are realizing we have a problem and that it’s not just Carbondale,” Holder said. “But what do we do to fix this problem and how do we heal? And healing would begin by giving clear history and direction to the problem. It’s not going to stop until we get to the root of the problem.”

While thousands of people have protested across the country without incident, in some major cities, peaceful demonstrations have given way to violence, destruction and clashes between police and protesters. Given that, some people in Southern Illinois towns unaccustomed to demonstrations acknowledged they were nervous about what might happen.

In Anna, about 15 or so people stood across the street from demonstrators Thursday evening. One public official told The Southern they were there unofficially to back up law enforcement if things got out of hand. Across Anna, people stood in front of their businesses or outside their homes, watching as the protests made their way through town.

In Carterville, Alderman Tom Harness, who is white, said he didn’t know what to expect when he heard on social media about plans to have a demonstration in his small community — something that is virtually unheard of in modern times.

“I was very nervous at first because, like most people, all I focused on was some of the negative impact that I was seeing in these communities,” he said. “As an citizen, and as an alderman, I wanted to make sure our people were safe, I wanted to make sure our businesses weren’t going to get destroyed.”

Despite his “mixed emotions,” Harness said he decided to attend. It was the first racial justice rally he has ever taken part in, and he walked away feeling empowered and like he better understood the events unfolding nationally. He said he plans to stay in touch with some of the people he met to try to strategize ways to get more people of color involved in municipal affairs.

“I was outside my comfort zone but I learned a lot, and I think the only way that we’re going to grow is if we get outside that comfort zone,” Harness said.

In Benton, about a dozen or so white men stood across the courthouse from the demonstrators in front of a row of motorcycles. They are members of two motorcycle clubs — the Storm Riders and the Outlaws. Some of the demonstrators began to express concern about why they were there — and then one member of the group came over to let them know that their purpose was to keep everyone safe.

“We’re here to make sure the peace is kept,” said a man who goes by Hardway, of West Frankfort. Another guy, who goes by Jaybo, of Marion, also chimed in: “We mainly want to stop them, too, from tearing up the town like we’ve had in other places,” he said. “We’ve lived here for years and we’re just here to protect our own and keep the peace and serve the community.” They declined to provide their real names — opting instead to give their “road names.”

Benton’s protest ended without incident, but was filled with tense moments. As a stream of cars made their way around the square, some people honked. A few stuck their arms out of their windows — some with their hands in fists, a black power fist salute acknowledging solidarity, and others with their middle fingers raised high. As the demonstrators yelled “Black lives matter,” one guy walking down the street yelled back, “White lives matter, too, dumba--.” As they yelled, “I can’t breathe” — the words Floyd uttered on tape while pinned to the ground — the man yelled back, “If I can hear you, you can breathe.” “This ain’t got nothing to do with black and white,” he said as he walked off.

Two other guys on motorcycles — who were not part of the group on guard — rolled through blaring a racist David Allen Coe song about his disgust toward a white woman who sleeps with a black man. It includes the “n-word” and the two men sang that verse — loudly. Another guy driving by rolled down his window and told the group that they needed to look up what Black Lives Matter stands for — “it’s a terrorist organization,” he said. The Southern asked for his name and he declined, saying the paper is “very liberal,” “anti-American” and “anti-white.”

While the event was overwhelmingly positive, Tyler Chance, of West Frankfort, said that the negative attitudes expressed by some passersby are more pervasive in Franklin County to this day than they should be. That’s why he wanted to join in the rally.

Chance, 28, who is white, said there were no students of color in his high school graduating class. But now, he teaches high school English in a predominantly black school in St. Louis. The experience, he said, has opened his eyes to the injustices that black Americans face daily — yet too many white people in Franklin County remain silent about it, he said. “Growing up in Franklin County, I saw racism all around. I see it today.” Speaking up in a public way takes courage, he said, especially when it is people within one’s own family who are expressing racist views. He held a sign that said, “No more racist Southern Illinois. No more racist USA.”

Owens, who helped organize Saturday’s Benton event, said change will only come for a town with a troubled past like this one when white people make it clear that they won’t tolerate racism. “In a predominantly white community, your voice matters,” she said to the crowd. “You have to stand up for the black community. Use your voice.”

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