Thursday, June 30, 2011

Race, History, and Cairo

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Bazooka Magazine

When the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they might bust the Birds Point levee to help relieve pressure on the flood walls of Cairo, Illinois, a lot of people complained. While there were some legitimate arguments against the plan--the possibility that it wouldn’t really do any good, questions about whether it would set off an earthquake, and the fact that ACoE’s plans don’t have a great track record for working out as expected, for example. Of course, most people didn’t go with these arguments. Instead, most people went with the same “Cairo is a shithole” argument that got Missouri House Speaker Steven Tilley into trouble. The argument basically went that the few hundred farmers in Birds Point (always presented as all-American family farmers, despite the fact that most of the land there is owned by corporate farms or long-time farming families, the current heirs of which rarely use tractors for anything other than photo ops) were more valuable than the few thousand poor people in Cairo who had let their city turn into such a shithole. A common sentiment was “Cairo can rebuild; the people of Birds Point will lose their homes,” which suggests that the people of Cairo are merely squatters who can’t possibly possess (or at least aren’t entitled to) the same sense of place as their counterparts on the other side of the river.

The class warfare angle here is obvious, and the discussions of Cairo I heard or read did include some of the typical “bootstrap” nonsense you hear from people who don’t understand the cash flow, psychological, or opportunity costs of living paycheck to paycheck. However, despite the fact that I often get upset with activists who turn class issues into racial issues--effectively leaving poor white people out in the cold--I think that in the case of Cairo, race is an important part of the discussion. Most people (at least where I grew up in Ballard County) who say that the people of Cairo are responsible for the town’s current state really mean that the black people of Cairo are responsible for the Cairo’s downfall. This assignment of blame to the blacks of Cairo becomes even more blatantly racist in light of the city’s history.

Despite being at the tip of a state that touches our northern border, Cairo has always been a Southern town. The sign at the city’s entrance once read “Where Southern Hospitality Meets Northern Industry” and, more recently, simply “Gateway to the South.” Given that Cairo is wedged between two former slave states and at the same latitude (37 degrees) as Richmond, Virginia (capitol of the Confederacy), this isn’t all that surprising. Although Cairo’s location as a river hub and the southernmost stop on the Illinois Central Railroad line made it a useful stop on the Underground Railroad, most slaves who entered Cairo were only passing through; Cairo residents at the time liked to boast that the town had a climate that wasn’t suitable to abolitionists. In 1860, only 55 of Cairo’s 2,000 plus inhabitants were black.

When General Grant made Cairo a base of operations for the Union Army, the makeup of the city’s population began to change drastically. In 1862, the Union Army set up a “contraband camp” where former slaves lived while the government decided how to deal with them and after the war Cairo became a frequent stopover point for former slaves leaving the south. By 1870, about 40% of the city’s population was black, and the African-American population stayed at around this level for the next 100 years (when the percentage of blacks increased mainly because of the number of whites who left the city).

Once the Union Army left Cairo, it didn’t take long for tension to start building between the newly-arrived black population and the good ol’ boys who had long called Cairo home. One of the most famous examples of racial violence in Cairo happened in 1909, when accused (black) murderer Will James was lynched and shot multiple times, burned, and dragged through the streets in front of a crowd of over 10,000 people. To add to the gruesomeness, parts of his body were taken as trophies and his burned head was hung on a post near the home of his alleged victim. The mob then tore through the town looking for his supposed accomplice (who might or might not have existed) until Governor Chalres Deenen sent in eleven National Guard companies to restore order.

In 1913, Cairo (which had had a black city councilman from 1885-1901) changed its government to a commission whose officers were elected at-large, effectively disenfranchising black voters, and the racial tensions continued. Even the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s didn’t do much to help the black citizens of Cairo. Most employers (including the city) refused to hire black workers, public housing remained segregated for nearly 8 years after the Department of Housing and Urban Development changed its policies, and a private school (Camelot) was set up mainly as a way to skirt school desegregation.

In 1969, a group called the United Front organized a boycott of white businesses that refused to hire blacks. They also organized protests and solidarity rallies and worked with the Kennedy-initiated Lawyer’s Committee For Civil Rights Under Law to challenge racial discrimination in the city’s court system, governmental hiring practices, and police department. This led to an increase in violence. According to a story in the July 1973 issue of The Veteran, “The white community responded to this action [the boycott] with gunfire, and within the past four years, the people of Cairo have been the targets of over 200 nights of fire-fights. The local police and a white vigillante [sic] group (White Hats) have, since then, fired into the black community with machine-guns, automatic carbines, high-powered rifles, sub-machine guns, and shot-guns. The black community has continued to defend itself.” Arson was also a common White Hat tactic, as well as the occasional bombing.

The United front continued its pursuit of equality for Cairo’s black citizens for over a decade, but during that time many of the city’s white businesses simply chose to leave town rather than end their discriminatory practices, causing further economic damage to an already struggling city. In 1980, a court decree ended the city’s at-large voting system and two blacks were elected to the city council, but by that time the damage was done. The newly-enfranchised black citizens of Cairo inherited a city with few jobs, no tax base, and extremely high poverty rates. As poverty (and the violence and crime that comes with it) increased, many Cairo’s remaining businesses closed their doors.

Ironically, Cairo today, with very few local businesses and many citizens already relying on social welfare programs, is one of the few cities that might actually benefit from a Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, the city (which can’t even afford gas for its police cars) is too broke to offer the kinds of subsidies Wal-Mart requires to set up shop. While the decline of river traffic, the railroad bridge at Thebes (which allowed rail lines to bypass Cairo), and other factors have contributed to Cairo’s demise, the white businesses who left town to avoid integration were the final nail in the coffin. Since they left because the black citizens of Cairo demanded equality, anyone who blames the current citizens of Cairo for the town’s downfall is, in effect, blaming the situation on a bunch of black people who got “uppity.”

Despite the crushing poverty and eroded tax base, there is still some hope for Cairo. Southern Illinois University has been working with citizen groups to preserve and restore historic buildings, Alexander County is attempting to secure funding to promote tourism, and last year Governor Pat Quinn created the Alexander-Cairo Port District, which will hopefully encourage businesses to locate in the area. If it all works out, maybe one day Cairo can once again become the hopeful place Twain wrote about instead of the run-down ghost town that Neil Gaiman so accurately described in American Gods. Personally, the very fact that two of my favorite authors have written about Cairo makes me think there’s something about it worth saving.