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CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois is at the center of a national conversation about the First Amendment after the country rock band Confederate Railroad was removed from the Du Quoin State Fair’s grandstand lineup last week, apparently over their use of the name and symbols of the Confederacy.

A Facebook group called #boycottduquoinstatefair has reached more than 2,400 members in four days, drawing national attention as members discuss their frustration with the cancellation and plan their protest.

Meanwhile, several Southern Illinois venues are working to book the band for a local makeup show.

“To me this isn’t about getting people to our business. If whoever else in Southern Illinois ends up bringing them in, I won’t be mad. This is about Southern Illinois proving a point,” said Joe McKinney, who manages entertainment at the Field of Dreams event facility, one of the venues in contact with the band. “This choice was made by a select few up north who are offended, instead of what the majority want, and the band was completely disrespected.”

After speaking with the band’s agent, McKinney believes the band is receiving at least partial compensation from the state, and remains legally bound to some elements of its contract.

That includes an obstacle to a makeup show: a “radius clause” that prohibits the band from playing any other concerts in the Southern Illinois area within 60 days of the Du Quoin show, McKinney said, which was set for Aug. 27.

That means the soonest the band could play in the region is late October.

“If we book them tomorrow, we can’t even announce the show date until Aug. 27,” the day the band was supposed to play at the fair, he added.

Booking a show that far after the fact could be risky, McKinney acknowledged, if public interest cools off. But he believes it’s worth it.

“We need people to understand we’re not going to forget,” he said. “This has happened for too long.”

The cancellation was first acknowledged by Du Quoin State Fair Manager Josh Gross in a statement to the Du Quoin Weekly.

“The Illinois Department of Agriculture has removed Confederate Railroad from our 2019 Du Quoin State Fair Grandstand lineup,” he said. “While every artist has a right to expression, we believe this decision is in the best interest of serving all of the people in our state.”

That comment has led many to infer that the decision was made by Illinois Department of Agriculture leaders in Springfield, and not by local employees. The Department of Ag manages the two annual state fairs in Illinois.

When reached for comment, the department declined to confirm when the band was booked, who decided to cancel it, why the band was removed, or whether the band will still be paid.

Larry Dean Basler, of Marion, learned of the cancellation from the Du Quoin Weekly newspaper story. He started #boycottduquoinstatefair on July 4, expecting just a few dozen friends to join.

“I never thought it would explode the way it has,” he said, as musicians like Joe Bonsall and Charlie Daniels, plus national conservative commentators like Todd Starnes, used their platforms to condemn the cancellation.

“I think we’re going to hit them in their pocket books, even with parking alone,” Basler said. “And I think fair officials and the Department of Ag should apologize and see if they’ll still come play. Instead of up-north politicians cramming their agendas down our throats, you should be catering to Southern Illinois and what the people here like.”

Basler has no idea what percentage of the group’s members are local residents, who may actually boycott the fair, he said.

And within the group there are differing opinions on the best course of action.

Some, like Basler, are calling for a total boycott of this year’s event.

Others are calling to boycott Aug. 27 only. Still others, like McKinney, think a boycott is ill-advised.

“Illinois would love nothing better than to shut that fair down,” he said. “We know it’s struggling. If we boycott and say we’re not going to spend money, they’re kind of getting what they want.”

Other members of the group are calling for a protest outside the fair, and many have protested by leaving one-star reviews on the Du Quoin State Fair’s web listings. Brandon Dempsey, whose Facebook profile identifies him as the owner of Wild Dave's Mowers in Herrin, said in a post in the group that his business has pulled its vendor spot at the fair.

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But beyond protest logistics, the Facebook group is joining broader cultural debates about whether the Confederate name and flag are racist symbols — the same debates that rage around the movement to remove monuments to Civil War generals.

To the band, and to Basler, the Dixie flag is a symbol of heritage.

“Some people see it totally different than what it’s meant to be and you can’t change that, you know, just like you’re not going to change me as far as being proud to be from the South. And to me that’s all that (name) is,” said lead singer Danny Shirley, in an interview with Duke FM that has been circulating on YouTube.

As Basler sees it, the flag has been unfairly attacked — a victim of political correctness imposed by liberal regions like northern Illinois.

“History is history, you’re not going to erase it. If you want to get rid of racism why have Black History Month and bring it up year after year,” he said. “One good thing came of it: bringing slaves over your family and heritage grew up here and now you’re free. Their own people sold them to colonists. If you want to blame anyone, blame yourselves.”

His solution to the current dispute? If you don’t like the band, don’t attend the show.

It’s the same approach he would take with Snoop Dogg, the rapper who will be performing at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

“If Snoop is playing, I’m going to stay away because he offends me,” he said. “That’s the difference between conservatives and liberals. They feel, 'you should be tolerant but we don’t have to be.'”

Weighing in on Facebook, State Rep. Terri Bryant agreed that objectionable content should be treated equally (though she noted she’s against a fair boycott).

“I am a firm believer in First Amendment Rights. But, if these arbitrary 'politically correct' lines are going to be drawn for certain acts, then I would like to know from the administration where this starts and where it stops,” she wrote. “If Snoop Dogg is allowed to play at the Springfield State Fair, I would urge that Confederate Railroad be reinstated as an act at the Du Quoin State Fair.”

But other Southern Illinoisans see things differently.

Imagine, said Nathan Colombo, a community organizer of Carbondale and former mayoral candidate, an African American family walking through the fairgrounds seeing perhaps dozens of band T-shirts bearing the confederate flag. Think about how that family might feel.

“People of color already avoid some spaces in Southern Illinois because of the negative racial attitudes they feel there,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to do that at the fair.”

Micki Weaver, a psychologist and facilitator of the Race Unity Group of Carbondale, said she would be appalled to see such symbols.

“The fair was supposed to be something for people in our state to join together at the end of the year, and celebrate what we’ve accomplished and what we’re proud of. And the state fair is supported by taxes,” said Weaver, an African American woman. “I would find it hard to imagine that people of diverse backgrounds could feel comfortable.”

Weaver agrees with Bryant that both Snoop Dogg and Confederate Railroad include objectionable messages, but not with her call to reinstate the band.

“Neither one makes the other right,” she said.

Snoop irrespective, no band should glorify the U.S.’s slave owning past, agreed Colombo and Scott Martin, another member of the Race Unity Group.

But ultimately, Colombo said, their name is their choice and their right.

“We’re not stopping Confederate Railroad from their form of speech. What we are opting to do is not use state resources to heighten their visibility,” he said.

The band has not made any public statements since the cancellation was announced and its agent, Travis James, did not respond to a request for comment.

But when Joe McKinney chatted with a band member on Facebook, he got the sense they weren’t sweating things, he said.

“He flat told me that they’d been on the road too many years and one little speed bump isn’t gonna stop them,” McKinney said. “And he said with all this, it has probably helped them get their next gold album.”

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