“Cairo is a town forgotten”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of a boycott of white-owned businesses by the United Front of Cairo. The protest [April 1969] was met with violent opposition from local merchants and police — and, for the most part, indifference from state officials.

By 2000, the town’s population had fallen to 3,632; of those, 33.5 percent lived in poverty.

The town’s decline continues today. As a resident of Cairo wrote recently to The State Journal-Register, the capital city’s daily newspaper: “I guess the saying is true that ‘the state of Illinois stops at Carbondale,’ because anything south of that doesn’t matter!”

This piece was published in a special edition of FOCUS/Midwest.

“Driving on U.S. 51 through Cairo, Illinois, you can see a few “closed” signs on drive-in restaurants and most of the motels along the highway appear to be deserted. Chances are you probably won’t get downtown to Commercial Street to see the vacant storefronts; you probably won’t even see the bullet holes in the rectory of St. Columba Catholic Church or the burned-out homes and businesses in Cairo’s black community.

“Once a booming river town strategically located between the big Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Cairo is a town forgotten by the surge of modern technology; abandoned by towboat captains who once stopped there for refueling on their long journey northward. Perhaps because of its geographic location at the southern tip of Illinois, coupled with its proximity to Kentucky and Tennessee, Cairo is steeped in southern tradition.

“Cairo is a town of just over 6,000 people, about half of whom are black. It has been steadily losing population, recording a drop of 33 percent from just over 9,000, between the 1960 and 1970 U.S. Census. . . . A report by Basis System Inc. found that of the 2,369 families living in Cairo in 1960, 1,057 earned less than $3,000 annually. Unemployment averages about 8.2 percent, and is as high as 20 percent among nonwhite males. Only 10 new homes have been built in Cairo within the last 10 years.

“Cairo is a study in contrast, seemingly mismatched with the lush green fields that surround this dying town in what is popularly known as Little Egypt. It is a dirty town, decaying from within, torn by racial strife; it is a community where rifle shots penetrating the quiet nights have become the rule rather than the exception. It may well be the most polarized community in the nation…. ”

Excerpted from William R. Brinton’s “The Story of Confrontation,” in the July-August 1970 edition of FOCUS/Midwest.

At the end of April 2011, U.S. Corps of Engineers weighed breaching a Missouri levee in order to save Cairo from devastation. Missouri’s Speaker of the House Steven Tilley, a Perryville Republican, was asked whether he’d “rather have Missouri farmland flooded or Cairo underwater?” Tilley’s response: “Cairo. I’ve been there, trust me, Cairo. Have you been to Cairo? OK, you know what I’m saying then.”