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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 black population.

 

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.

 

Cairo, Illinois Protest

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.

 

In 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.

 

The 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 Illinois 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.

Sadly, Preston 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 Cairo.  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 Cairo is cheap, and many, intrigued with the prospect of building a business, have taken the opportunity to start in Cairo. But, 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

 

Cairo, Illinois boycott

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 Jr.

 

Protest march on Commercial Avenue, July, 1970

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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