Racists Once Terrorized This Illinois County. Diversity Made It Prosper

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Written By Blue & Gold NLR Team

 

 

 

 

Illinois takes pride in its diversity and tolerance, yet it grapples with a dark history of racism and violence. A notable example is Williamson County, a rural area in southern Illinois that experienced terror at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists during the early 20th century.

Lynchings, bombings, shootings, and riots targeted Black residents, immigrants, labor activists, and those challenging the status quo, earning the county the moniker “Bloody Williamson” due to its brutal reputation.

However, in recent decades, Williamson County has undergone a significant transformation. Thanks to an influx of residents from varied backgrounds, cultures, and religions, the county has become more diverse, prosperous, and progressive.

The population has grown from around 60,000 in 1980 to over 67,000 in 2020, with a shift in racial composition from 98% white to 88% white, 6% Black, 3% Hispanic, and 2% Asian. The economy has diversified, with industries like healthcare, education, and tourism replacing declining sectors. Political shifts have also occurred, with more Democrats and independents supporting social justice causes winning local offices.

How did Williamson County become a hotbed of racism and violence?

Williamson County’s history of racism and violence traces back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dominated by the coal mining industry. The industry attracted a diverse workforce, leading to tensions among miners divided by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and union affiliation.

Harsh working conditions, low wages, and frequent accidents fueled strikes, resisted by mine owners and supported by local authorities and the media. The violent peak occurred in 1922 during a war between the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the Progressive Miners of America (PMA), resulting in hundreds of deaths and a lasting legacy of fear.

How did Williamson County overcome its racist and violent past?

Williamson County’s transformation unfolded gradually, influenced by several factors:

  • The decline of the coal mining industry: Post-war, the industry entered a decline due to depleted reserves, competition, and environmental regulations. This shift reduced dependence on a single sector, allowing new industries to emerge.
  • The influx of new residents: Since the 1980s, a diverse influx of residents from various backgrounds, cultures, and religions has contributed to the county’s growth and vitality.
  • The emergence of a progressive and inclusive culture: Alongside new residents, a progressive and inclusive culture emerged, championing diversity and tolerance. Institutions, organizations, and individuals played crucial roles in fostering this culture.

Conclusion

Williamson County’s journey from a racist and violent past to a diverse and prosperous present is a testament to the transformative power of diversity and tolerance. The county’s history serves as both a lesson and an inspiration for others grappling with similar challenges.

Williamson County’s ongoing growth and improvement underscore the importance of not taking diversity and tolerance for granted, making it a beacon of hope and progress.

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