Cairo, Illinois - Page 5
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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 that
National Guard was called in to quell racial hostilities.
Demonstration of the segregated pool in Cairo, 1962, photo by Danny Lyon
That same year, Preston Ewing, Jr., Cairo's
NAACP president, wrote a
letter to Adlai Stevenson, the state treasurer, reporting that Cairo
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
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 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.
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
Ida B. Wells Barnett.
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
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.
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.
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.
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