To some degree, what compels those who seek to untangle Cairo’s complicated past is the refusal to believe that a town – an entire town – is an artifact of racism.
In May 2011, the governor of Illinois called for the evacuation of Cairo, a sparsely populated and predominately African American town located at the confluence of the flooding Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Years of neglect left the town’s levees in poor repair, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers assessed an imminent breach. The Corp of Engineers made the decision to intervene and perform a controlled breach to divert flood waters several miles upstream in Missouri, instigating a federal lawsuit that placed the interests of productive heartland farmers against socially and economically devastated black families. Although the Supreme Court dismissed the suit, the controversy served as an uncomfortable reminder that past struggles, when detached from collective memory, can quickly resurface in new battles.
As Leon Litwack wrote in How Free is Free: The Long Death of Jim Crow, “In the early twenty-first century, it is a different America, and it is a familiar America.” Rather than provoking compassion for displaced Cairoites, news coverage engaged in the compulsive repetition of stereotypes that placed helpless blacks amidst the inevitable outcome of their self-created ills. Survivors of decades of white flight and protracted civil rights struggles, black families in Cairo are heirs to an emotionally significant but materially hollow victory that remains largely forgotten even to regional memory. “The complex origins of Cairo’s descent into progressive obscurity” created a movement and moment out of sync with national narratives: organized civil rights action came late to Cairo and is unconnected to major national figures, and formed in response to already unlawful but habitual abuses of power by a white minority. Cairo’s geographic isolation assisted state and national indifference until the late-1960s, at which time intervening federal commissions on civil rights found both white and black residents “divorced from reality and unable to move the city toward economic, political, and social progress.”
The humiliation and economic stagnation caused by a years-long boycott of white business combined with “the dogged persistence and selfishness of Cairo’s “good and rational” people sentenced the city to economic and social oblivion – living testimony to the arrogance of exclusion.” Arriving in Cairo, one expects to see the clumsy layering of main street architecture mixed with evidence of older flood damage or, if one is trained to make such an examination, a pattern that reveals decisions, choices, and the order of obsolescence. What one actually sees in Cairo is a void, similar to what architect Daniel Libeskind called “the space of encounter,” a place where the visitor confronts the past with no direction, only the sense that things are absent which should be present. This absence extends not only to industry, but also the intangible atmosphere of a living town: the sound of traffic, of people, of the ever-present low hum of electricity, the delineation of neighborhoods and districts along with other proof of life.
Cairo once thrived, however, as a modestly successful river town. In 1848, the Cairo Delta boasted to the one hundred and fifty residents recently settled by the Cairo City & Canal company that:
Its central position, midway between the Gulf and the Lakes, at all seasons available by the largest steamers and soon to be connected with the other by a railroad traversing the vast interior of the state and the junction of the two mightiest rivers of the West and at the confluence of three states, Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri – surrounded by a country of unbounded agricultural and mineral resources – the reshipping port of Ohio and other rivers – and moreover, from these advantages of position, united to those having at hand an abundance of building materials, located in a coal region and possessing the command of inexhaustible quantities of iron at cheaper rates than it can be procured at any point above, destined to be a large commercial and manufacturing city – make it the point for an enterprise of this nature.
At points in Cairo’s history, this prediction almost came true. Just prior to the Civil War, a hundred steamers per week passed through the Delta and the growing freight industry facilitated a busy lumber mill that turned out 12,000 to 20,000 feet of timber per day while business of maintaining river transportation grew a rapidly increasing population. Despite strong predictions, however, Cairo never enjoyed the stability of other river towns. What Cairo did have in common with other river towns was an alternate economy, pieced together from liquor licenses, gambling fines, seized illegal alcohol, and other revenue extracted from vice. This general lawlessness invaded Cairo, supporting a small but powerful ruling elite derived from those profiting from liquor revenue and tavern businesses.
These conditions created an unsafe environment for black migrants who worked the Delta region at the turn of the century. Often the targets of half-hearted attempts at reform, Cairo’s lax judicial machine favored menacing African Americans from town with the assistance of mob rule. Despite the early passage of anti-mob laws in Illinois, in 1909 Will James became one of eighty-two black men lynched in the United States that year. The crowd that gathered to watch James hanged, shot, beheaded, and burned horrified and angered state lawmakers who still resented the attention of Springfield’s earlier race riots.  These and other embarrassments damaged state support for Cairo’s attempts to attract new industry to replace failing rail and river lines. With more cultural similarities to Southern towns than Northern neighbors, until there was no industry left to speak of, Cairo proclaimed that it was the spot “Where Northern Enterprise Meets Southern Hospitality.”
Although Illinois did not experience the de jure segregation commonly known in the South as Jim Crow, battles to end segregation were no less fierce. By the 1940s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) represented one-third of Cairo’s population and over the next decade instigated the town’s first formal attempts to challenge disparities in educational facilities and teachers’ salaries. The situation in Cairo led NAACP special counsel Thurgood Marshall to remark that “in southern Illinois discrimination and segregation is so bad that self-respecting Negroes go to Louisville, Kentucky, for some freedom.”
Following a 1952 state report that spotlighted Cairo’s non-compliance with state laws forbidding segregation, the NAACP led a brief push to desegregate public schools. Despite stalling from schools Superintendent Leo Schultz, by the spring of 1952 the NAACP had assisted eight-five pupils register for transfers to all-white schools. On the eve of the effective date, three families seeking transfers found crossing burning on their property, and the following day a group of men bombed the home of the town’s back physician. These attacks left black residents shaken, but the presence of national NAACP field workers and federal authorities facilitated the integration of twenty-one black children into all-white schools in the days after the bombing. Once federal observers left, Cairo police arrested six local NAACP members, two members of NAACP field staff, and two black parents for “conspiring to injure the life and health of Negro children” by forcing them to attend white schools.
Racial tensions also flared over public amenities which became, in Cairo’s depressed economy, important symbols of class. In 1963, the city allocated public funds for the construction of a community swimming pool, welcomed by both white and black families as a luxury to tempt children away from dangerous swimming in the Mississippi river. The city closed the pool the same summer it opened to prevent integration, initially supporting attempts to limit access to white “pool members” before filling it with concrete to stem protests. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from Illinois universities supported these early demonstrations, especially summer rallies, and represented an unwelcome presence in the town. Militant white Cairoites blamed these outsiders for planting the “insidious seeds of racial discontent and greed” in the black population. Gradually, the momentum of the national movement diverted attention and assistance from Cairo, leaving organization for further action in the hands of the communities that existed around black churches such as the 12th Street Baptist Church. As in towns across the South, Cairo’s black church imparted messages of survival, uplift, moral strength, and belief in the long fight. This support sustained Cairo until the death of Robert Hunt in 1967.
Private Robert Hunt was nineteen years old when Cairo police stopped the vehicle he was travelling in to notify the driver of a broken headlight. According to witnesses, Hunt and the officer had a tense exchange that resulted in Hunt’s arrest for disorderly conduct. Shortly after, police allege that Hunt hanged himself by fashioning his undershirt into a noose and tying it to the ceiling of his cell. Police summoned the town’s black doctor to attend to Hunt’s body, who woke NAACP president Preston Ewing, Jr. The two men examined Hunt’s body, finding evidence of assault in addition to Hunt’s other obvious trauma. Both the Army and Hunt’s family maintained that Hunt never exhibited signs of a suicidal temperament and rumor began to quickly circulate that Hunt’s questionable suicide was murder. Attempts by Cairo police to obfuscate further investigation triggered a wave of demonstrations, which turned violent when police met protestors with force. After three days of rioting, the governor activated the Illinois National Guard to restore order to the town.
Hunt’s death ignited what would become a six year standoff between militant white citizens and the town’s disfranchised black population. Ten days after Hunt’s death, concerned whites led by State’s Attorney Peyton Berbling formed a paramilitary group called the Committee of Ten Million, also known as the White Hats due to the protective helmets worn when patrolling. The endorsement of the White Hats by the Cairo chief of police signaled what the United States Commission on Civil Right would later call “a breakdown of justice and law.” By 1969, the White Hats numbered six hundred and used their presence to patrol black housing projects and enforce an illegal curfew. In the two years following Hunt’s death, the NAACP recorded over one hundred and fifty confrontations, with police deputies and armed citizens firing side-by-side into neighborhoods like Pyramid Courts, where children slept in bathtubs and under beds to avoid gunfire. The governor ordered the disbandment of the White Hats in 1969, but the group quickly reformed under the umbrella of the United Citizens Council of America, and later the White Citizen’s Council.
Black citizens and their white allies also formed a coalition called the United Front of Cairo, drawn heavily from the membership of black churches and the town’s small progressive white population. In April 1969, the United Front launched a boycott of Cairo’s white businesses that featured a strategy of both economic withdrawal and the installation of protestors in the city’s downtown commercial district. Making up forty-three percent of the town’s population, black citizens took their business to neighboring towns through organized Freedom Rides and supplemented these provisions with the pooling of clothing, food, and other resources. In order to stem the boycott, the mayor of Cairo issued a proclamation that prohibited the gathering of two or more individuals in public. With the assistance of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the United Front successfully obtained a restraining order issued by the federal government that prohibited interference with peaceful marches.
From 1969 to 1973, Cairo’s civil rights struggle took place not only through the boycott, but also through a number of state and federal lawsuits, public hearings, and other class-action challenges. White businesses floated their ledgers with federal loans in an attempt to wait out the boycott, but by 1971 the economic safety net available to merchants reached its limit and businesses closed both by choice and necessity. As one resident remembers, “The picketing, I guess, began to cease in ’71, to take a different connotation, because by that time there wasn’t anything downtown to picket; all the businesses had closed. It had accomplished a goal – but a victory, no. Because everybody lose in a situation like that. Nobody wins.”
Between 1973 and 1975, the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued three reports regarding racial tension in Cairo. These reports made a number of recommendations concerning educational opportunities, housing, employment, and law enforcement. Cairo achieved most recommendations, however, not through changed attitudes but because the migration of white residents to cities like Paducah, Memphis, and Evansville left little committed opposition.
Cairo’s population reached black majority in 1990 and African Americans currently make up seventy-percent of Cairo’s 2,800 residents. Many of those who remain are the aging veterans of the civil rights struggle along with their children and grandchildren. While African Americans now hold political offices and represent seats on the Cairo City Council, some residents feel that the town remains poisoned by its history of discrimination and suppression. As one black Cairoite explained, “I would say this about today: it’s the same old thing, only camouflaged. Back then, they just came out with it; they didn’t care what they said. But today, it’s the same old chicken, just warmed over.”
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale serves as the keeper for much of Cairo’s civil rights memory, sponsoring programs like The Cairo Project, an interactive website and subsequent publication by photojournalism students that documents the lives and stories of Cairoites. NAACP president Preston Ewing, Jr. also created an impressive record of Cairo’s struggle for civil rights through his talent for photography, and Southern Illinois University Press published a selection of images as Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois 1967-1973.
In the late-1970s, the National Register of Historic Places accepted a nomination for the creation of a Cairo Historic District. The district contains 980 structures recognized for significance to architecture and pre-1850s Illinois history. While the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) prepared his nomination with information previously obtained during work on Illinois historic landmarks and structures surveys, he seemed to find something amiss in freezing Cairo’s history in the moment before the Civil War. In his justification, he wrote:
What gives Cairo its magnificent sense of past times, however, is the same thing that threatens its future: decay. It is a city whose time seems to have passed forever. There is a very immediate danger that Cairo could decline so far as to lose all value both as a place of history and a place of habitation and work. To end the slide or even to restore some of its lost grandeur is, though, almost sure to mask the last 70 years of the city’s history. A dilemma, no doubt, but one of the future and one that has no bearing on the historic qualities of Cairo as they now exist . . . it remains to this day the history of promise unfulfilled.
In the SHPO’s assessment, what is most striking about Cairo is not its accumulation of notable architecture but the way the condition of the architecture made the intangible qualities of Cairo’s history legible. The state of Cairo’s built environment presented evidence of something more sinister than the passage of time, creating a visual metaphor for both the town’s material and immaterial decimation. The decay mentioned in the SHPO’s 1977 report is now staggering. Twenty years later, a writer for Preservation Magazine visited nearby Fort Defiance State Park, hoping that recent grassroots efforts to maintain the park might represent a story in which the act of preservation helped a community heal from a troubled racial past. Author Sudip Bose found committed volunteers and a setting that conjured up images of Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn and Negro Jim,” but he added that, “on the other hand, a mile and a half to the north, at Cairo’s dingy outskirts, where the historic tip of Southern Illinois used to rest, my imagination goes blank.” For Bose, Cairo represents what journalist Ron Powers described as a “crucible of American decay and self-annihilation.” For both the Illinois SHPO and Bose, decay is the central element of Cairo’s material presence, and it jeopardizes narratives of progress and racial harmony by refusing to unstick Cairo from its turbulent past.
In the last decade, a culture boom in both amateur and professional attempts to document the decline of American cities via photography has generated a vast archive of ruin using cities like Detroit, Buffalo, Youngstown, and Gary as models. Popular coffee table books such as The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre and Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled bring spectators bespoke images of industrial collapse while natives push back against the “outwrought melodrama” embedded in images that intentionally occlude any signs of life. But in many ways, reactions to these images are more about the future than the past. Compelling photographs of cities like Detroit disconnect the past from the present in favor of creating a new version of time – the “not-if-but-when” time – that reminds us that the things we were once frightened to imagine are now possible. Most immediately, the reference is to the collapse of Fordism and the growing distance between the working-class and middle-class, but it is not surprising that some extend the association to a more uncertain future that is dystopian in nature. Case studies that frame Detroit in conversations headlined “Lessons from a Dystopian Wasteland” and “America Dystopia More Reality than Fiction” create cultural capital around the transhistorical perception of wreckage upon wreckage in which “speculative strategies that tell us more about the beholder than about the ruin or its original environment” thrive. By contrast, associations formed in Cairo are not about the future at all, because Cairo does not have a future. In Cairo, the lack of mediation between past and present does not inspire questions about an uncertain future, but signals the possible return of something familiar that must remain repressed in order for us to continue to believe or create comforting narratives about racial healing.
In Owen Dyer’s essay for The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, he argues that “at the nation’s largest civil rights memorials, there is a growing consensus as to what the movement stood for and who the protagonists were,” and that this consensus, “overlooks more insidious and pervasive elements that constitute contemporary white privilege and patriarchy.” Dyer’s assessment of civil rights and the cultural landscape indicates that “a focus on the national, general, and otherwise distant past is “safe,” whereas sustained treatment of local, specific, and contemporary is not.” Local and specific narratives are “unsafe” because they resist attempts to rectify a past that includes violence committed and suffered by those still living in close proximity to the space of encounter. Rather than emphasizing the realities of virulent racism, the institutionalization of civil rights memory promotes the legacy of key moments, charismatic leaders, and personal courage. At best, this strategy creates flawed but viable heritage attractions that offer a tangible link to the past. At worst, it reduces civil rights memory to a bland allegory facilitated by inspirational stories. Recognizing that visitors seek an authentic experience, however untenable, Dyer is more interested in the scale representations of segregation presented by museums in Memphis, Birmingham, Savannah, and Atlanta. By creating active participants out of passive spectators, scale representations produce an understanding of the past removed from the convention of consuming history as the usual trilogy of text, photograph, and artifact.
Literary critic Brian Norman further argues that evidence of segregation are objects sought out in museums “to reassure us that Jim Crow is indeed dead, but we wonder if such venues can bear the burden of representing the lived experience of compulsory race segregation.” Artifacts in museums and memorials are often themselves segregated: held by an artificial demarcation that separates the “then” from the “now,” waiting to be revisited amongst other careful and critical commentary. Although Norman’s expertise lies in fiction, his argument that individuals become estranged by the recognition of symbols that speak to an unsettled racist past is relevant to the study of history as well. As he explains, “when we encounter a segregation sign in historigraphic fiction, its very legibility threatens our intellectual certainties that these signs are artifacts, dead or wooden objects from an era that is past but has not passed.” To some degree, what compels those who seek to untangle Cairo’s complicated past is the refusal to believe that a town – an entire town – is an artifact of racism.
In Cairo, the dispossessed now keep the town alive, and how these individuals process the town’s past is an important part of understanding how civil rights memory functions at the grassroots level. Those of an age to be participants in Cairo’s civil rights struggle are intensely proud of the resistance shown during a time of repression and harassment. Clarence Dossie told interviewers “you just can’t imagine how beautiful it was, to know that black people did come together.” Another resident shared that remembering his past made him feel that “I was the rightest person in the world, that I was there for a reason. I was proud of that reason.” Former resident Rachel Jones produced a segment for National Public Radio on Cairo, during which she explained that “The alienation that stung my head and heart at age six has turned to deep sorrow over Cairo’s ravaged landscape . . . but then I realized that I would never get Cairo out of my system, and I shouldn’t want to . . . I’m a survivor. Cairo taught me, and still teaches me, how pointless and soul destroying hatred is.”
Filling the remaining space with suggestions as to how Cairo might rebuild or arrest its decay would ignore the devastating reality faced by the town and those who remain there. Southern Illinois University will continue to introduce students to Cairo, whose fresh perspectives in a variety of fields may eventually lead to areas of revitalization, and its graduate students have produced admirable work documenting the town’s civil rights past. By all indications, Cairoites maintain productive relationships with institutions in positions to offer understanding or assistance, but report after report contains references to never-to-be museums, heritage developments, and new civic amenities. Because Cairo complicates, rather than exemplifies, our dominant narratives of the civil rights era, the concern that Cairo’s history may disappear is not misplaced. How, then, to use Cairo as material culture to bridge this complex story of the past to the present to show, quite differently than museums and memorials do, that history rarely cooperates with attempts to create cannon.
In Elizabeth Abel’s recent work on the legacy of segregation, Signs of the Times, she emphasizes the importance of curating visual elements of the era in order to better appreciate their ramifications in the present. Unlike Owen Dyer, Abel is skeptical of recreated segregation in museums. As she writes, “These entrées to the scene of inequality exploit the potential of their three-dimensional space to deliver the effect of immediacy, even as that effect is inevitably mediated by the terms of access to that space.” She continues, “Photography’s flat surface, by contrast, may be better suited to examining the effects of mediation to which its own existence inescapably bears witness.” Perhaps Cairo then, a town whose very existence serves as space that amplifies the ramifications of a racist past, may be used as a sign that strikes a balance between recreated experiences and flat representations. To tour Cairo in the present is to confront its past, unsanitized and unmediated. Abel favors photographs that convey transitional moments that “place the viewer in front of padlocked door whose closure signals the close of a system, yet whose traces linger on the wall.” More than rusty padlocks linger in Cairo, and that reality is inescapable. When Cairo nearly perished in the 2011 flood, even those advocating for the town spoke about its blight uncomfortably, resisting the opportunity to educate the wider public on the origins of its grave decline. Because the decision to spare Cairo was urgent and political, the language of defense was the de-racialized colorblindness favored in public policy where individuals are simply people and not black Americans with a specific racial past. Perhaps some who did favor allowing the floods to take a natural course of events saw in the situation an opportunity to quite literally submerge an unpleasant chapter of history and free those remaining from their limbo. By all indications, however, those who remain wish to remember and reclaim both the town and its past.
In Cairo, once searches in vain for evidence of new construction, a reliable sign that life goes on in an otherwise declining town. And there is new construction, if one moves beyond the decaying architecture of Cairo’s commercial district and immediate residential neighborhoods. The newest construction in Cairo is a series of steel fences around the Leroy McBride housing project. In a town that cannot financially support a police force, officials spent vital public funding creating a series of pitifully short chain link fences around projects that house much of Cairo’s most severely impoverished African American population.
Ostensibly, the fences are designed to frustrate gang activity, but resident suspect less civic-minded motivations behind the construction. Similar to many other young men trapped in small towns across America, the youth of Cairo has for decades regarded athletics as an avenue of escape or a means of coping. The basketball court at Leroy McBride facilitated vital recreation, and occasionally produced players talented enough to secure athletic scholarships to local universities. With few other amenities, crowds gathered to watch children and young adults play and to socialize. While the court remains, it is now surrounded by perimeters of chain link fencing and neighbors speak to one another and watch weekend games behind barriers. The Leroy McBride housing project was known, in Cairo’s turbulent civil rights era, as Pyramid Courts, where children slept in bathtubs to avoid aimless gunfire from police and their deputized militants who patrolled the area to keep black residents within the boundaries of their designated space. In her editor’s preface to Let My People Go, Jan Roddy writes that “Some will disagree over how deeply attitudes have changed and tangible power has shifted. I risk leaving you with this complex reality rather than a far too simple, happy ending.” This must conclude with similar disappointment, but belief that the very language and nature of the civil rights movement implies a continuous struggle that lacks a neat ending, and that evidence of this struggle continues to be written into the landscape of the present.
 Leon Litwack, How Free is Free: The Long Death of Jim Crow (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 143.
 Preston Ewing, Jr. and Jan Peterson Roddy, Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois 1967-1973 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996), x.
 United States Commission on Civil Rights, Cairo: A Symbol of Racial Polarization (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1973), 7.
 Ewing, Jr. and Roddy, xviii.
 Eric Kligerman, Sites of the Uncanny: Paul Celan, Specularity, and the Visual Arts (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007), 236.
 Addison H. Sanders, “Editorial,” Cairo Delta, 11 May, 1848.
 Herman R. Lantz, A Community in Search of Itself: A Case History of Cairo (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972), 25.
 Ibid., 75.
 Stacy Pratt McDermott, “’An Outrageous Proceeding”: A Northern Lynching and the Enforcement of Anti-Lynching Legislation in Illinois, 1905-1910,” Journal of Negro History 84, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 68.
 June Shagaloff, “A Study of Community Acceptance of Desegregation in Two Selected Areas,” The Journal of Negro Education 23, no. 3 (Summer 1954): 333.
 J. Clay Smith, ed., Supreme Justice: Speeches and Writing: Thurgood Marshall (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 74.
 Shagaloff, 335.
 Shagaloff, 336.
 Ewing, Jr. and Roddy, xvii.
 Ibid., 17.
 United States Commission on Civil Rights, 2.
 Ewing, Jr. and Roddy, xii.
 Ibid., xiii.
 Ibid, 33.
 Ibid., 79.
 See The Cairo Project.
 National Register of Historic Places, “Cairo Historic District,” Cairo, Alexander County, Illinois, National Register #79000815.
 Sudip Bose, “Defending Fort Defiance,” Preservation Magazine, August/September 1997.
 John Patrick Leary, “Detroitism,” Guernica Magazine, 15 January 2011.
 Julie Hell and Andreas Schönle, eds, Ruins of Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 7.
 Romano and Raiford, 7.
 Ibid., 18.
 Brian Norman, “The Historical Uncanny: Segregation Signs in Getting Mother’s Body, a Post-Civil Rights American Novel,” African American Review 43, no. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 2009): 443.
 Ibid., 454.
 Ewing, Jr. and Roddy. 24.
 Ibid., 34.
 Rachel Jones, “Lessons from Cairo,” National Public Radio: Reporter’s Notebook, available on-line at <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5032061>, accessed 28 April 2013.
 Elizabeth Abel, Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow (Berkley: University of California Press, 2010), 2.
 Jason George, “Brief Flame,” Chicago Tribune, 10 August 2008, available on-line at <http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2008-08-10/features/0808050022_1_flame-housing-project-dismal-swamp>, accessed 30 April 2013.
 Ewing, Jr. and Roddy, x.