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Cairo, Illinois - Page 6

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Gambling equipment taken in the raids of the 1950's.There were, in fact, a number of mobster groups operating in Cairo, not only running bootlegged liquor but, also operating profitable slot machine rackets. The various groups brought more violence to the city, as the gangsters tried to squeeze out their rivals, smashing slot machines, firebombing cars, and killing each other. On July 19, 1950 $20,000 worth of gambling equipment was confiscated from simultaneous raids on six night clubs and taverns in or near Cairo. Just a month later, at the height of the gambling raids, five State Police were charged with theft of $150 from slot machines confiscated during a raid in Cairo.

 

Over the years, Cairo's population began to decline due to the violence and the decrease in river trade. This decline; however, would not lead to Cairo's ultimate demise – instead, it was racism.

Thurgood MarshallThe first major push for racial equality occurred in 1946 when black teachers filed a lawsuit in federal court to secure equal pay. When the case was argued the same year by famed attorney, Thurgood Marshall, the judge and defense counsel continuously referred to Marshall as a "boy." Defense counsel then went on to explain to the court how a comparable case in Tennessee had been handled by a distinguished attorney who knew what he was doing, unlike the "boy" in this case. When the Defense counsel had completed his pontificating speech, Marshall quietly stood up and thanked counsel for the compliments, then informed the court that he was the brilliant attorney who had handled the case in Tennessee.

Six years later, in 1952, efforts were begun to integrate Cairo's schools but, separate black schools would not be abolished until years later in 1967.

By 1960, the town supported only about 9,000 people. That number would, unfortunately, drop more drastically over the next few decades, as racial tensions in the town escalated into a full-blown “war.”

 

By this time, the old scars of racism had hardened, and Cairo's racial divide was starkly drawn. The city's black citizens couldn't get work in white-owned businesses and when rural whites from Kentucky and Missouri were hired instead of local blacks, the African-Americans rebelled. By 1962, local freedom movements were breaking out in communities all over the country, though they were seldom reported by the national media.

 

The city facilities were completely segregated, including public housing, local parks, and seating in the courthouse. Almost all public and private offices employed only whites. During this time, the public swimming pool became a “private club,” in order to keep out the black population. Requiring a “club” membership card to enjoy the cool waters of the pool, a large group of Civil Rights activists demonstrated at the pool in 1962, which spawned a white racist to deliberately drive his pickup truck into the demonstration, severely injuring a young African-American girl. The segregated swimming pool was finally closed in 1963 to avoid integration.

 

At about the same time, a demonstration occurred at the local roller skating rink to integrate the facility. When the group arrived; however, the skating rink owners had locked the doors, and the KKK was holding a meeting inside. Someone had stuck a note in the door with an ice pick that said, "No n____ here!"

 

 

 

Demonstration at the segregated pool

Demonstration of the segregated pool in Cairo, 1962, photo by Danny Lyon

 

Full-out "war" began in 1967 after the suspicious death of a 19-year-old black soldier, who was on leave, occurred while he was in police custody. Deemed to be suicide by the authorities, the black community disagreed and led by Cairo native Reverend Charles Koen, they rose up in protest against not only Hunt's death but also a century of harsh segregation. Resulting in a riot, the whites quickly formed Vigilante groups, and the violence increased to such an extent that that the Illinois National Guard was called in to quell racial hostilities.

 

That same year, Preston Ewing, Jr., Cairo's NAACP president, wrote a letter to Adlai Stevenson, the state treasurer, reporting that Cairo banks would not hire blacks. The state responded by telling the banks they must hire blacks or it would remove its money from them.

 

Another black soldier, named Wily Anderson, who was on leave, was killed by sniper bullets. A week later, a white deputy named Lloyd Bosecker was shot in retaliation. Cairo police charged four blacks in connection with the shooting and eleven others for violations of an anti-picketing law.

 

The racism continued; however, as the Burkhart Factory, Cairo's largest industry, practiced racial discrimination, refusing to hire African-Americans. Little League baseball was cancelled to keep black children from playing, and a private "all-white" school was established. By 1969, black citizens were not allowed to gather at sports activities, in local parks, or form marches without being threatened by local police or a Vigilante group called the White Hats.

 

To counteract the White Hats, the black community formed an organization called the United Front of Cairo in 1969. Fighting back, the coalition spawned an intense civil rights struggle to end segregation and create job opportunities. Residents were helped by what local whites called "outside agitators," including the Reverend Jesse Jackson and famed journalist and activist Ida B. Wells Barnett.

 

Continued Next Page

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