Then came the Civil Rights movement. Cairo was always a southern town in a northern state, its soil in Illinois but its soul in Tennessee. Its white leaders took a rock hard stand against integration. In 1967 there was a bloody riot, and many houses and businesses were burned. Black leaders then organized a boycott of white-owned businesses that wouldn't hire black employees. They kept it up for three years, from 1969 to 1972. But rather than integrate, dozens of businessmen packed up and moved elsewhere. What was left was something like a ghost town. Now Cairo has only 3,000 inhabitants and a 26% poverty rate, and it has become a common stop for travelers seeking the forgotten backwaters of America. Here is blogger John Henion:
My first impression of Cairo was that it seemed like a nice place but I was glad I didn’t live there. I was ready to leave. And then I drove one block over.
Right on the levee of the Ohio River was what I can only describe as a modern day ghost town. It was as if a prosperous little downtown area with high-end hotels, restaurants, supper clubs and streets lined with ornate lamps had been abandoned overnight.Strangely, it was beautiful.
I couldn’t resist. I had to snap some photos. I found a dilapidated old hotel and got my camera out. While I was working on my composition, there wasn’t another soul or sound around. But this silence was suddenly interrupted by a low rumble and a horrible scraping noise. I looked over my shoulder to see a slow moving truck emerge from an alley with a lawn chair crumpled and dragging underneath it. Instead of getting out and dislodging the lawn chair the driver just carried on, business as usual. That is, he carried on until he decided that what was important enough to interrupt this progress was calling out to me, “You’re supposed to take pictures of something pretty, fucker!”
At first I figured my new friend, this lawn-chair-scraper-guy was just bored and thought it would be funny to shout at me, the only other soul on this stretch of nothingness. But I’d later learn that there might be more to his commentary than meets the eye. . . .Nathan Kirkman of TIME:
What's left, after decades of white flight and economic stagnation, is an expanse of abandoned buildings, bulldozed lots and forgotten history. . . . "I describe this town in three words," says Preston Ewing Jr., Cairo's unofficial historian and former president of the local NAACP chapter: "poor, black and ugly."Stephanie Zimmerman:
The Elias Ace Hardware in Cairo is open, but the Shell is closed. The Washateria is open, but the CutMart has closed. There is no McDonald's, no Burger King, no Arby's. There is no recreation center, no bowling alley, no movie theater. The Spirit House — for liquor — is open, but the Christ Temple — for souls — is closed. Churches are for sale, prices reduced. The Martin CME Temple on Poplar Street is available, its public auction sign nailed to a dead tree stump.
Congregating in the streets is now the recreational pastime. At 24th and Sycamore, a former swimming pool is permanently filled with concrete and grown over with weeds, the city's response to court-ordered integration.It's a sad story of the America we don't like to think about, where industrial decline and racism combine to destroy places and lives.