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David Fisk (Lens of
Cairo, Illinois - Page 7
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Though African-Americans demanded jobs from the white-owned businesses,
owners refused to acknowledge their requests. As a result, the United
Front then began to boycott white owned businesses. Still, the
establishments refused to hire them, and chose instead, to just close up
shop or go out of business, rather than succumb to the demands of the
In April, 1969, Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon
and a special committee, appointed by the Illinois House of Representatives, began to investigate the events occurring in Cairo.
The Illinois General Assembly soon ordered the White Hats to disband and
called for the enforcement of civil rights laws and racial integration of
city and county departments.
A protest in Cairo,
from the book Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois 1967-73, by
Jan Peterson Roddy, photo by Preston Ewing
Jr. Most of these buildings are gone now, and in their place is a large empty lot.
Even though the state government had become
involved, white residents continued to
hold mass meetings in public parks, while the African-Americans held Civil
Rights rallies in various churches.
September, 1969, Cairo's
mayor issued a statement prohibiting the gathering of two or more people,
all marches, and picketing. However, the black protestors continued to
protest. A federal court would later rule the mayor's proclamation
unconstitutional. Though both the federal and state governments had gotten
involved, they were ineffective in controlling the continued segregation
and inequality that existed in Cairo.
demonstrations and violence continued into the 1970's, producing more than
150 nights of gunfire; multiple marches, protests and arrests,
numerous businesses bombed, and more declaring bankruptcy.
By 1970 the population had dropped to a little
over 6,000 people and by the following year, there was very little left to picket as most of the downtown
businesses had closed. For those establishments that remained, the
boycott continued for the rest of the decade.
Once Commercial Street was lined with businesses -- a Hallmark
store, the Mode-O-Day, Khourie Bros. Department Store -- in front of which,
the Hamburger Wagon sat serving up popcorn, greasy burgers, and flavored
sodas; Florsheim Shoes, a music store, photography studio, banks, auto
dealerships, gas stations, and restaurants. All closed now.
Elsewhere in the city, some 40 small neighborhood grocery stores once
thrived. On our visit in 2010, we could find not a single open grocery
store. Cairo's residents were once entertained by numerous speedboat races
on the Ohio River, as half the town sat on the concrete levee wall
watching. Not any more. Another entertainment venue -- the Gem Theatre --
closed its doors forever in 1978 after operating for nearly 70 years.
Cairo's 44-bed hospital closed in 1986, the town soon lost its bus service, and
in 1988, the City of New Orleans, operating on the rail line, made its
last stop. Though the passenger depot originally built by the
Central Railroad still stands, the trains no longer stop for passengers.
In the end, Cairo
would become the city that died from racism. By 1990, the town sported a
population of little less than 5,000. It's citizens tried valiantly to
save the town when Riverboat Gambling was legalized the same year.
Enacted partially to revitalize dying towns, it was the perfect
opportunity for little Cairo
to have a second chance. However, the State of Illinois, instead, awarded
the license to nearby Metropolis, some 40 miles northwest on the Ohio
River, dashing all hopes of the town's opportunity to revitalize its
economy and population. By
the year 2,000, Cairo's population had dropped to only about 3,600
residents. The 2010 census put it at 2,831.
Ewing Jr., Cairo's unofficial historian, former president of the local
NAACP chapter, city treasurer, and participant in the Civil Rights
Movement in Cairo, described the town as "poor, black and ugly." Further,
not having unrealistic expectations, he said, "Our goal should be to
stabilize Cairo, not talk about growth. Potential employers will go where
there is greater viability and an infrastructure to support businesses."
In fact, things were so bad in 1990, that the Cairo High School graduating
class was advised to leave the town by its principal.
Built to support a population of
over 15,000 people,
Cairo is a “ghost town” today, by definition -- any historical town or site that leaves evidence of its
previous glory. A third of its population are below
the poverty line. The city is predominately African-American at almost
72%, compared to Caucasian at about 29%. The median income for a
household in the city was just $21,607 in the 2000 census and continues
to face significant socio-economic challenges including education
issues, high unemployment rates, and lack of a commercial tax base, which all
contribute to the sadness of
In the 2010 census, the median income for a household in the city
dropped to $16,682.
The city and its residents have worked hard over the recent years to
stabilize the small town; however, these attempts are often
short-lived, as there is simply no money. The real estate in
cheap, and many, intrigued with the prospect of building a business,
have taken the opportunity to start in
business is slow as residents wonder why these businesses have started
in their small town. Additionally, many residents see these newcomers
as temporary – being too used to people coming to help and then
leaving. After years of turmoil,
Cairo's residents are often untrusting
Continued Next Page
By 1971, there was very little left to
picket as most of the downtown businesses had closed in
Cairo. Photo from the book Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois 1967-73, by
Jan Peterson Roddy, photo by Preston Ewing
One of the largest protest marches took place on
Commercial Avenue in July, 1970. Photo from the book Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois 1967-73, by
Jan Peterson Roddy, photo by Preston Ewing Jr.
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