CAIRO — A federal report concerning strife-battered Cairo details years of civil rights violations against black residents, inadequate and segregated public housing conditions for low-income families, and government failures at all levels, including the miscarriage of their oversight function by Housing and Urban Development officials.
The author of the independent review, published by a federally sanctioned commission, describes it as an attempt to provide clarity as to what has gone wrong in Illinois’ southernmost city that sits between two major rivers — and once held such promise it was believed possible it could rival Chicago. The intended goal of the review is to help the city understand its past so that it can move forward in a constructive manner, the report states.
“The report is published in the belief that opening windows and letting in light and fresh air may help the citizens, community leaders and public officials of Cairo, Illinois, and of other “Cairos” move ahead on an agenda leading to a more democratic society, one more closely fulfilling the American dream,” the preface to the report reads, explaining why it was published by the federal government.
The 93-page report is based on testimony from dozens of Cairo citizens and community leaders and state and federal officials, as well as newspaper reports and other publications concerning the city's affairs.
The author notes the effects of deep poverty on many of Cairo’s citizens. A third of the city-county population receives some kind of public assistance, the report states. More than half of Cairo’s dwellings are classified as deteriorating or dilapidated. “Despite the fact that these great rivers of commerce flow alongside, the city is an economic backwater,” the report states.
An African-American teenager testified, according to the report, that there are few opportunities here for young black people after they graduate high school.
“This town is so far behind and backwards it’s really a shame,” the 19-year-old is reported to have stated to the federal review panel, an independent commission created to examine places such as Cairo. “You don’t think about staying and looking for a job. You can’t even work as a bag boy in a supermarket. You just think about going away all the time.”
Some blame feds for inflaming tensions
The teen was one of several who raised concerns about a lack of opportunities for the African-American youth of Cairo, according to the report. But others were dismissive of these claims.
A prominent attorney, who at one time counted among his clients the local housing authority, was among those who ridiculed such notions that racial inequality could be related to the current state of Cairo, the report states.
Another business leader in town, according to the report, challenged the intention of federal review panel members and the report’s author, saying it did not seem as though they really wanted “to listen to anything good” about Cairo. Others claimed the federal review panel members only intended to stir up controversy after locals had long moved past the issues they wanted to discuss, the report states.
Author addresses America's boredom with race talk
In addressing the complaints of these citizens, the author writes that he understands that many Americans are bored with the continued discussions of race in the newspapers and on television. “They would prefer ecology, unisex or whatever particular concern is currently ‘in,’” he writes.
But he challenges back with several rhetorical questions: “Do residents of Cairo’s segregated public housing feel that the topic of racism has been exhausted, that all is really both said and done?”
“And this body of (civil rights) law, how well does it work to change the quality of lives? After decades of political rhetoric and legislation, why can’t a government capable of the effort required to land men on the moon effectively end racism and poverty in one small Midwestern city?”
And, “Does it really want to?”
The author, who spent months studying Cairo before the monograph was published, walks away with a somber impression. He writes that some veteran observers, white and black, have said that the Cairo power structure — “the phrase may be too grand for the ramshackle edifice it describes,” he opines — some time ago came to the conclusion that the city was never going to make it big.
But rather than work across racial and socioeconomic boundaries to the benefit of all, some white city leaders were persuaded to “run the city as a limited fief, resisting change that might challenge their entrenched position, reaping the fruits of stagnation,” the report states.
Because of this, many promising young people, the potential future leaders of the city, left Cairo for communities with more opportunities and less tension.
That Cairo's best and brightest, black and white, fled Cairo for greener pastures, was just one of many problems noted by the report's author. Over time, the government at all levels turned its back on Cairo, citizens testified.
A Washington Post article is cited in which a former Cairo newspaper editor is quoted saying, “We didn’t get this way overnight. The state has treated us like an orphan child riding in the rumble seat of a car during a snowstorm.”
Former Lt. Gov. Simon was also interviewed about the situation facing Cairo. The downstate Democratic political leader said that state indifference has had far reaching effects here. “But those far from the scene, who over the years have shared responsibility for what has happened, do not have to live with the tensions which smother this community,” Simon said.
Public housing 'coming apart at the seams'
On the subject of public housing, the report describes Cairo’s two large family public housing developments built in the early 1940s as “coming apart at the seams.” The report raises questions as to why the public housing complexes remain segregated against HUD policy; to potential conflicts of interest among housing board members; and to why state housing and federal HUD officials based in Chicago had done so little to respond to the concerns raised about fair housing violations and poor living conditions by the citizens of Cairo.
As well, the report notes there are pressing maintenance needs at both complexes that have too long gone ignored, and an overall need for new affordable housing development in the city. A state housing official testifies that the answer is not more public housing, but rather lies in attracting the private market to the table or tapping into state-sponsored moderate income housing programs.
But the author notes that the housing inadequacy issues facing Cairo are immediate, not just long term. According to a black public housing resident living in a segregated complex, as quoted in the report, “The houses need paint. And the roaches, the rats, and the cracked ceilings, cracked walls, bad plumbing and bad screen" need to be addressed. "And whenever there is a screen repair, the tenant has to pay for the repairs.”
The former housing authority director told the federal agents that he recognized the complexes are in desperate need of repairs — but added that he had been waiting for HUD to come through with some money to assist in the costly endeavor.
As for state and federal housing officials, they were long on excuses for why they had not held those in Cairo accountable for the services they were expected to provide with taxpayer dollars — safe, adequate, and fair housing to some of the state’s poorest residents — in accordance with the law, the report states.
“It is a trail through a bureaucratic labyrinth..." the author offers as to the lack of adequate answers as to the reasons bureaucrats gave for why more had not been done.
The Illinois director for HUD’s regional office was asked if he was aware of the problems with public housing here. The director acknowledged he had recently been made aware of the “acute situation” through media reports.
According to the federal report, this HUD official testified that some “long overdue” but “positive steps” were in the works to improve the public housing situation. “It’s a slow process,” he said, according to the report, “Because the climate of the community has not been conducive to any immediate changes…”
But the report’s author disagreed with the nature of that assessment: “Once again, civil rights law enforcement appears whimsical rather than absolute, at the mercy of community climate,” he writes.
A HUD official representing the agency’s civil rights division also was interviewed about why more had not been done to address allegations of discriminatory and inadequate public housing in Cairo.
He was quick to point out, according to the report's author, that the Office of Equal Opportunity did not come into existence until 1968 — and that the Justice Department also can take action without HUD first requesting it.
The head of the regional department charged with enforcing fair housing laws added that there are problems concerning fair housing in many communities. He testified that while Cairo’s housing problems are particularly troubling, his department is short staffed and required to service six Midwestern states, according to the report.
The report’s author concludes its chapter on housing by stating, “The hearing does not get all the facts on what it takes to put a decent roof over the heads of poor people in Cairo. But it learns enough to understand why the building up of the city never begins, why the shooting never ends.”
This report was published in 1973
This federal report — “Cairo, Illinois: Racism at Floodtide" — was published in October 1973 by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The late Paul Good authored the report, and the opinions expressed therein are his, not necessarily those of the commission. Good, who died in 2005, was a journalist known for his television and print coverage of the civil rights movement. The contents of the publication were largely based on testimony given at a hearing held by the Commission on Civil Rights in March 1972 in Cairo.
As a point of clarification, the Lt. Gov. Simon quoted in the article refers to the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, who served as Illinois' lieutenant governor from 1969 to 1973, and not his daughter, Sheila Simon, who assumed the same post 38 years after her father’s term ended.
The date of issuance of this federal report was purposefully withheld to the end of the story — to prove a point about how history continues to repeat itself where it concerns Cairo, and other “Cairos” throughout the country.
Many of the concerns raised in this report remain relevant to the present-day housing crisis playing out at the bottom tip of Illinois -- and related conversations about Cairo's troubled economy.
In opening his 1973 report, Good writes: “This is about a small American city named Cairo that raises large American questions.”
Nearly 45 years later, many of those questions remain unanswered.