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Racists Once Terrorized This Illinois County. Diversity Made It Prosper

Illinois has a long history of bigotry and violence, while taking pride in its variety and tolerance. Williamson County, a rural area in southern Illinois that was terrorized in the early 20th century by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists, is one famous example.

Due to its violent history, the county was nicknamed Bloody Williamson and targeted Black citizens, immigrants, labor activists, and anybody questioning the existing quo for lynchings, bombings, killings, and riots.

But Williamson County has changed significantly in the last few decades. The county has become more prosperous, progressive, and diversified due to the influx of people from different cultures, ethnicities, and religions.

From 60,000 or so in 1980 to around 67,000 in 2020, the population has increased, and its racial makeup has changed from 98% white to 88% white, 6% Black, 3% Hispanic, and 2% Asian. The economy has become more diverse, with burgeoning sectors being replaced by sectors like healthcare, education, and tourism. Political changes have also taken place, with an increase in Democrats and independents running for local government on the platform of social justice.

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

The coal mining business dominated the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when racism and violence in Williamson County first appeared. A diverse workforce drawn by the industry resulted in tensions among miners who were split by factors such as race, ethnicity, country, religion, and union allegiance.

Strikes were sparked by harsh working conditions, low pay, and a high rate of accidents; mine owners opposed them, but the media and local government stood behind them. A conflict between the Progressive Miners of America (PMA) and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1922 marked the violent peak, leaving a legacy of dread and hundreds of deaths.

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.


The transformation of Williamson County from a violent and racist past to a varied and wealthy present is evidence of the transformational potential of tolerance and variety. The history of the county can be a source of inspiration and guidance for those facing comparable difficulties.

Williamson County is a shining example of progress and hope because of its continuous growth and improvement, which emphasizes the value of valuing variety and tolerance.


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