Black Lives Matter in Small Towns, Too

How would you organize a Black Lives Matter protest in a nearly all-white town in the Midwest? Chadwick Workman can tell you. 

“I thought that even if a couple people showed up, the demonstration would be a success,” Workman says.

Workman was inspired by the marches he saw happening in cities across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd. The twenty-four year old decided to organize a local rally, even though, growing up, he was one of the few Black residents in his Illinois hometown of Kincaid, which has a population of about 1,500. 

With help from his friend, Misty McPeek, Workman tackled the logistics of hosting a march in nearby Taylorville, a town of more than 10,000, in just a few days and posted the event, “BLM-Taylorville Edition,” on Facebook. 

Workman did not have high expectations for turnout. 

“I thought that even if a couple people showed up, the demonstration would be a success,” he says.

On June 4 at 6 p.m., hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the Christian County Courthouse in Taylorville. They marched five blocks through the city’s downtown, many with signs and some with strollers, past the brick storefronts. When the group stopped at the courthouse, the crowd was silent as Workman read George Floyd’s final words for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer was said to have knelt on Floyd’s neck. 

The Taylorville protest was so large, and in such a seemingly unlikely location, that footage of the march was featured on CNN as evidence that the Black Lives Matter movement was reaching new corners of America.

“The way George Floyd’s death happened, unlike the way such deaths had in the past, it hurt more than just the Black community,” Workman says. “I got to see a town where I grew up and had to deal with racism come out and show they wouldn’t stand for it anymore.”

Workman and the other local organizers from Education and Action Together, an anti-racist activist group based in Springfield, Illinois, see these new relationships formed during the rallies this summer—particularly between Black and white individuals and between Black communities and the local police force—as the key to positive change and equality in their own towns.

The racial disparities in police violence seep into all regions of the United States. According to one database tracking a hundred police departments in the largest cities nationwide, police officers are four times more likely to shoot an unarmed Black person, compared to an unarmed white individual.

When protests come to towns and small cities, this reveals a general disaffection in the country, says Richard Gilman-Opalsky, professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, whose work focuses on revolt and global uprisings.

“When social movements and protest activity become widespread in large cities, we almost always find smaller formations of that activity in small cities across the country,” Gilman-Opalsky says. 

“Often, the radical elements—such as calls to defund the police—are more difficult to find in the smaller protest formations, than in densely populated cities,” he adds. “But there is in fact a mix of liberal and far more radical elements in the broader movement.” 


Among the hundreds of people who marched in Taylorville, many had never attended a demonstration for Black Lives Matter or any other cause.

One of the newcomers was Dwayne Wheeler, chief of the Taylorville Police Department. While the department was planning security details for the demonstration, Workman and the other organizers invited Wheeler to march with the group and to speak at the event.

“I wanted the police onboard more than anything, because one of the messages that I’m trying to send is ‘Not all cops are bad,’ ” says Workman, who plans to take the exam to enter a police academy in Illinois this fall.

Wheeler accepted and walked with the protestors. 

“It was a good cause that Chadwick put together,” Wheeler says. “And I think it was needed in Taylorville.”

He chose to speak about his officers’ efforts to get involved with the community, as well as offer an apology for the death of George Floyd.

The police chief says he has heard “a small percentage” of residents say they’re against Black Lives Matter. That concerned Wheeler while he worked out the safety details for the rally, but even with a light police presence, he felt the event “came off without a hitch.”

And part of the reason, Wheeler says, is that “our town is growing and changing. People are adapting.”

To address safety concerns for the rally, Workman said the biggest challenge was getting the public to see that the demonstrators did not intend to riot. During an earlier protest in nearby Springfield, Workman says he stopped someone from breaking a bank window. 

“Everyone has their own reason for coming to these,” Workman says. “Some people feel like the police are overstepping what they are meant to do. Some people just want to see the world burn.”

Workman knows the stakes are high. He intentionally keeps his Facebook livestream on during rallies to be transparent. He often refers people to his videos, so they can see what’s actually happening.

“One broken window can take away from the entire message that we’re trying to send,” Workman says. 


Without much exposure to the Black Lives Matter movement, people often gravitate toward the most sensational stories in mass media and on social media, says Kendra Day, a white resident of New Berlin, Illinois, another small town located one county away from Taylorville.

“This movement is different,” Day says. “You have to get involved and go to the events to realize it.”

“The most important thing to take away is to educate yourself on the real Black America. Not the media version, the stereotype,” Brown says. “That’s especially important in the small towns who maybe have one Black person.”

After attending a prayer vigil for Ahmaud Arbery in Springfield, Day hosted a discussion with Education and Action Together in her hometown on June 11.

“We need to listen,” Day says. “That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned—we have so much that we grew up thinking that’s not necessarily right. To be a part of this conversation and to be a part of this change, you have to work against some of what you’ve grown up ‘knowing.’ ”

Day later attended another Education and Action Together event in Pawnee, Illinois, on June 13, which was organized as a community question-and-answer session. (Discussions are more friendly to older participants than marches, Workman notes.) 

At the event, Day asked, “What is one thing people say when they want to help, but it is actually offensive?” 

The first reply from the organizers was that people often say, “I don’t see color.”

“We want you to see color, and accept us as we are,” Workman says. “I want people to talk to each other and understand that we are not a threat.”

During the discussion in Pawnee, Denitta Brown, a member of Education and Action Together, shared some of her experiences as a Black woman in America. 

“The most important thing to take away is to educate yourself on the real Black America. Not the media version, the stereotype,” Brown says. “That’s especially important in the small towns who maybe have one Black person.”

Brown and one of the attendees, Kelsie Bentley, talked about how churches in the area are segregated. Brown and Bentley decided to go to services at each other’s churches.

“We have to get out of our comfort zones,” Brown says. 

The organizers at Education and Action Together plan to host more discussions, in an even wider swath of towns, but they also have a long list of other action items. 

They’re petitioning police departments to stop hiring police officers with records of misconduct and excessive force, starting new programs to mentor youth in underserved areas, and hosting voter drives. Several members have completed a course that covers how to interact with police officers, and the group plans to offer the training to others. And at least two members of Education and Action Together have plans to run for state office.

“It’s a success of a rebellion when young people realize they can speak for themselves and realize their own powers with others in protest,” says Professor Gilman-Opalsky. “Regardless of the difference with policing, this is a real and lasting success of the uprising.”

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