Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism

In 1937; the focus changed to another potential disaster when in February, the Ohio River swelled to record heights. The flooding inundated the towns of Paducah and Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Cincinnati, Ohio, and scores of other smaller communities and as the huge crest moved downstream to the Mississippi River. Newsreel cameramen and newspaper correspondents rushed into Cairo to report the anticipated catastrophe. Women and children were evacuated from the city and a three-foot bulwark of timbers and sandbags was hastily built atop the levees. But, lucky for Cairo, the water rose swiftly to within four inches of the bulwark, wavered several hours and began to slowly recede. Of all the cities on the lower Ohio River, Cairo alone withstood the flood.

Piling sandbags along the levee flood. Cairo, Illinois, Lee Russell, 1937

Piling sandbags along the levee flood. Cairo, Illinois, Lee Russell, 1937

Though the citizens saved the town from flooding, its rough reputation was continuing, as the same year, it had the highest murder rate in the state. At the same time, its prostitute population was estimated to be over 1,000. And, for Cairo, conditions would get even worse. In the early 1940s, 12 serious fires destroyed businesses, most of which were never rebuilt. Making matters more difficult, after World War II was over in 1945, the town suffered from extremely high unemployment rates rather than flourishing like many communities across the Midwest. This further increased its crime rate and the city became a haven for organized crime. By the 1950s, the Illinois Senate began investigating a $20 million bootlegging operation that was sending large amounts of bootlegged liquor into nearby “dry” states.

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 Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

The 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.

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

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

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!”

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 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 Burkhart Factory, Cairo’s largest industry, allegedly practiced racial discrimination, refusing to hire African-Americans. Factory management contended they were following population ratios. Ewing disregarded the argument and demanded 50% of hires be black.

Little League baseball was canceled 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.

4 thoughts on “Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism”

  1. Grew up in Mound City, 7 miles up Ohio from Cairo. Delivered Cairo Evening Citizen 1964-1967. In 1967, moved to Wickliffe, KY, first KY town 6 miles after crossing Ohio River Bridge, Cairo, IL; graduated High School 1970 Ballard County, KY. Watched Christmas and July 4th parades, first cinema experience at Gem Theatre, first patient in new children’s wing of hospital in 1958, major shopping in Cairo, employed in branches of Federal Government with local offices in Cairo in early 1970’s.
    Not disputing presence of racism, but did not feel it as intensely as this record asserts. Perhaps I was insulated by the Baptist churches which emphasized equality and brotherhood. Candidly, however, the practice of their teaching was not as apparent: I never knew of any black members.
    I can assert the start of integration of schools was apparent at Mound City no later than 1964 with High School fully integrated by 1966. From Wickliffe, KY, I attended Ballard County High School, fully integrated no later than 1967. If Cairo was not fully integrated until 1967, it was significantly behind surrounding school districts.
    Racism is the only available practice of the result of prejudice. Prejudice feeds on fear, fear feeds on ignorance and ignorance feeds on pride. Neither black nor white population are without pride, ignorance, fear and racism. Brotherhood can grow but it first requires we acknowledge our own accountability for pride, ignorance, fear, prejudice and racism.
    But other cities and towns suffered racism and survived. I propose racism was not the only cause of Cairo’s decline.
    The geography of Cairo is also a problem and any analysis of the decline of Cairo’s economy should not avoid consideration of that problematic geology.
    The longest river in the world (geographically) is the Missouri-Mississippi River. And the Ohio River is the second longest River in North America. Preventing floods requires continuous vigilance and frequent maintenance.
    Cairo suffers from another phenomena: sinkholes. Powerful currents from the two mighty rivers curl, flow, and churn up the river bottoms changing the channels and creating “sand-bars”, temporary islands, every year.
    My first childhood sweetheart was enjoying a late summer picnic lunch with her family on a sandbar when she was wading in shallow waters and the sand beneath her collapsed. She fell into the current and was drowned. With a school class size of less than twenty, the mortuary and funeral hall a block from my home, her death remains one of my significant life events.
    That same natural force also cuts under the river banks. Mark Twain even described the capricious and treacherous nature of the river currents. It is also a major cause of sink-holes. The water table rises and falls annually with the river floods. That continuous change in the water table dissolves and erodes the underground geology. It is not uncommon for sinkholes to appear suddenly causing structures to collapse and infra-structures to fail, sometimes causing death. A fair description of the geology of Cairo, IL is a large sandbar subject to Nature’s annual and capricious whims. Not a favorable feature for establishing a long term prospect.
    The extensive navigability of rivers in central North America is one of the most significant factors in the rate of growth of the wealth of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the dependence on navigable rivers has declined, those cities which required the economies of river traffic to survive have declined. Cairo, IL is one of many examples. The economy of Cairo, IL relied almost exclusively on river traffic until rail traffic arrived in the mid 19th century. And then, starting in the mid 20th century, the interstate highway system bypassed Cairo diverting highway traffic.
    Cairo has a history worth remembering, but it has nothing attract an industry to sustain an economy.
    Racism made Cairo a place that offended fair minded people. But after river traffic declined, after rail and highway traffic were diverted, and lacking anything to attract an enduring industry, Cairo has lost any economic stimulus or prospect.

  2. This city was plagued with racism from it’s beginning. Current and prior residents remain closed minded!

  3. I keep reading about how “racism” killed this town. It sounds more like the town was fading economically to begin with.

    1. It has nothing to do with racism. The town only thrived because of the riverboats. It’s location was perfect when riverboats were the main mode of bulk transportation. Now with trucks/interstate highways and trains it is a less than desirable location.

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