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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016 12:17 am

Get right or get out

Fearful Illinoisans confront the Other


Back in June, news got about that there was waiting on the governor’s desk a bill to set up a Muslim Advisory Council. Kumbaya gestures of this sort have long been popular among politicians pandering to groups whose good opinion they hope to win. This particular bill, as would quickly become apparent, was so ill-drafted as to not pass constitutional muster and was thus doomed. Nonetheless, credulous people took the report as evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood is coming to take over the U.S. and their first stop, however improbably, was Second and Monroe.

“Apparently Illinois might become the first state in our country to give Muslims an official voice and role in government,” reads a typical response from  Michael Cantrell at the Allen B. West (“Steadfast and Loyal”) website. Hardly the first; all states give citizens who happen to be Muslims an official voice and role in government, since they have the vote like everybody else. No matter. To Cantrell, councils like this might be part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grand plan to wage “civilizational jihad” ag’in us’ns. Added Cantrell, “Not difficult to see it that way.”

No, not difficult  – you just squint real hard until you can’t see things clearly.

Does this mean that Illinois is about to be taken over by Muslims? No more than it was likely to be taken over by Joseph Smith’s saints or Johnny Reb sympathizers or Reds or bakers loyal to the Kaiser. In their eras each of those groups, plus a few more, excited to violence neighbors who imagined such outsiders to be monsters under the bed.

In 1900 McLean County, native-born Germans plus their children and grandchildren accounted for at least 30 percent of the total population. German words and German ways were as everyday in that part of mid-Illinois as pie and coffee. Many thriving businesses were German-owned, as were some of the best farms. Local public schools had taught the German language since 1871, several area churches held worship services in that language, and newspapers provided news in German.  

The decision by the U.S. government to enter the European war against Germany in 1917 transformed such citizens from townspeople to be respected into enemies to be feared. The super-patriotic State Council of Defense of Illinois was set up to ferret out Americans suspected of disloyalty, or rather, suspected of being possibly capable of disloyalty. Their Trumpish slogan was, “Get right or get out.” The council was not just another bunch of yahoos. It was a respectable bunch of yahoos, one that included such social stalwarts as the Bloomington mayor, the president of the Association of Commerce, the presidents of the First National Bank of Normal and Illinois Wesleyan University, the county superintendent of schools and a circuit court judge.    

Within weeks, the local council passed resolutions deeming it an act of disloyalty to the United States not only to print seditious material in German but to print any paper or publication in the German language, the council apparently understanding German words to be a sort of secret code. In English words plainly meant to be menacing, the defense council also urged that the use of the German language in schools and churches be discontinued “in the best interests of American citizens of German birth or descent.” Bloomington public and parochial schools and a majority of the other county school districts and parochial schools cravenly obeyed. And patriots no doubt slept a little more soundly after the German American Bank was induced to change its name to the American State Bank.

No overt violence was directed against McLean County’s hapless German Americans, but there was intimidation enough. A crowd of several hundred residents from Colfax and the outlying countryside descended on Immanuel’s Evangelical German Lutheran Church in Lawndale Township, demanding it end German services or the church would be burned. Similar threats were made in nearby Anchor. Up in Pekin, some patriots threatened to burn down the house of future U.S. Senator from Illinois Everett Dirksen because his German-born mother displayed a picture of Kaiser Wilhelm on her wall. (The whole ugly story is told by Tina Stewart Brakebill in “‘German Days’ to ‘100 Percent Americanism’” in the 2002 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.)

As noted, similar flare-ups of mass hysteria were sparked by fears that the Mormons had set up a theocratic state in Nauvoo and that Illinoisans loyal to their native South would sever southern counties and join the Confederacy. Most bizarre of all was the attacks on pamphlet-passing Jehovah’s Witnesses in Litchfield by locals convinced that members of that sect were in fact agents of the Nazi state bent on advancing in some undescribed way a planned invasion of the U.S. by Hitler’s forces.

Lessons? One is that crazy is contagious. Another is that, yes, it can happen here, because it has.  

Much of the material in this piece is taken from my book, Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Mid-Illinois, to be published by Southern Illinois University Press in mid-2017.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.


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