SPRINGFIELD – For nearly a century, the Du Quoin State Fair was known as a showcase for the rural, agrarian culture of southern Illinois, featuring livestock shows, carnival rides, harness racing, auto racing, monster truck shows, demolition derbies and, of course, country music.
This year, however, the annual festival in southern Illinois has become the focus of a statewide controversy involving a clash of political cultures.
The controversy involved a musical act that was booked for this year’s fair, a Southern rock band from Georgia called Confederate Railroad, which has been recording and performing in smaller venues and county fairs for more than 30 years.
The musical group was scheduled to perform Aug. 27. But when Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Chicago Democrat, learned about it, he ordered the Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of the fair, to cancel the performance.
At issue was the band’s logo, which features a railroad engine adorned with two Confederate flags.
“The Confederate flag is a symbol of the hate, oppression and enslavement of African Americans,” Pritzker’s communications chief Emily Bittner said in a statement. “It was flown over states that committed treason and started a war — so that they could keep enslaving people. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in this fight over whether the nation should allow slavery or end it.”
Officials at the fair declined to comment on the controversy, referring questions to the Department of Agriculture.
“While every artist has a right to expression, we believe this decision is in the best interest of serving all the people of our state,” said the department’s spokeswoman Krista Lisser in a statement.
But Pritzker’s decision did not sit well with some southern Illinois lawmakers, including Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, who vented her frustration on Facebook.
“I'm a firm believer in the government censoring as little speech as possible,” Bryant posted July 6. “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.”
Bryant went on to point out that the Illinois State Fair in Springfield this year will feature the rap artist Snoop Dogg, whose 2017 EP, “Make America Crip Again,” features an image on its cover depicting a dead President Donald Trump with an American flag draped over the body.
“If that doesn't offend the average person, I don't know what does,” Bryant wrote.
The Du Quoin State Fair began in 1923 as a private venture started by local businessmen who hoped it would become the region’s equivalent of the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. From 1957 through 1980, it hosted the Hambletonian Stakes, the first race in the Triple Crown of harness racing.
With the loss of that event, the fair ran into financial challenges and in 1986 it was taken over by the state.
This year’s fair is scheduled to run Aug. 23 – Sept. 2.
The Illinois State Fair in Springfield’s schedule is Aug. 8 – 18.
Peter Hancock can be reached at email@example.com