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Du Quoin State Fair

Flags on top of the grandstand blow in the breeze Saturday at the Du Quoin State Fair in 2017.

Abraham Lincoln is rolling in his grave.

The figure Illinois is most proud to call a native son, Lincoln, as leader of the Union, devoted his presidency to the fight against the Confederacy — a nation formed when Southern states seceded from our country because Lincoln’s election threatened the economy they had built on slavery. Five days after Robert E. Lee admitted defeat, after years of bitter and bloody fighting, Lincoln was murdered by a Confederate sympathizer.

Now, more than 150 years after Lincoln’s assassination, a country-rock band is causing a ruckus in the Land of Lincoln.

Confederate Railroad formed in the ‘80s, and enjoyed commercial success with two platinum hits in the ‘90s. The band was booked to play at the Du Quoin State Fair this year, on Aug. 27. But a couple of weeks after fair organizers announced the bulk of its entertainment lineup, the band was quietly removed from press materials promoting grandstand groups.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration banned the band from playing at the Du Quoin State Fair (Black Diamond Harley-Davidson has since booked the group to play there in September). After speculation simmered for days, the administration was forced to admit in a Monday meeting with state Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, that it had been behind the cancellation. After the meeting, a Pritzker spokesperson said this to explain the decision: “This administration’s guiding principle is that the State of Illinois will not use state resources to promote symbols of racism. Symbols of hate cannot and will not represent the values of the Land of Lincoln.”

The Confederate flag — featured in the band’s logo and on its merchandise — is a symbol of racism. State money has no place in funding that symbol. Black Diamond, as a private company is a more appropriate venue for the concert, although controversy remains.

Here’s an important thing to understand. White people don’t get to decide what is racist toward minority groups. According to a 2015 CNN/ORC poll, 72% of African Americans see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism. A person of color who sees a Confederate flag, whether flapping in the breeze or stamped on a T-shirt, has a legitimate reason to feel afraid.

We also must confront another important point: The Pritzker administration went about it all wrong.

If they were taking a stand, why not come right out and say it? There was confusion here for days as people tried to suss out who had canceled the band. Was it Du Quoin organizers? Was it the state? Were they axed from the lineup because of their name, their logo, or something else? The administration needed to take ownership from the start.

Even better, improved lines of communication among state officials could have prevented this whole catastrophe, which has led some people to threaten a boycott of the Southern fair. That would only be cutting off the region’s nose to spite its own face, seeing as we really wouldn’t be helped any to lose the economic boost the fair brings here annually. (And we can’t help but fear poor fair attendance this year could give the state reason to disinvest in it.) If Pritzker’s administration is staunchly against such imagery, how did Confederate Railroad even make it on the lineup in the first place? Perhaps the teachable moment here is that communication solves — or prevents — problems.

And speaking of teachable moments, we’d be remiss to leave out this doozy from Bryant’s Facebook post about that Monday meeting: “... I was told by one of the Governor’s staffers that I should use this case as a ‘teachable moment’ for the people of Southern Illinois. I am serious … that is what the staffer said.”

OK, that sounds really, really bad, especially to a region that’s constantly felt slighted by the powerhouse of state politics in Chicago. But, this could have been a teachable moment for everybody. This issue includes some of the most complex and important American values, including racial justice (or injustice) and free speech.

We could have had a meaningful debate as a region, and as a state, about the differences between controversial free speech and hate speech. About why Southern Illinois feels the need to rebel against state officials in Springfield and Chicago. About why some people do find the Confederate flag so offensive. About what is government censorship and what isn’t. About what is appropriate at a state-sponsored event and what isn’t.

Instead, we’re threatening one of our region’s biggest tourist attractions with a boycott. Many of us are defending our beliefs rather than listening to our neighbors’ concerns. Our region only stands to lose from that.

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